X-Men First Class

The first attempt to go back and explore the origins of a movie superhero was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was not wholly successful. Consider First Class to be a mulligan. Matthew Vaughn’s film not only gives us an origin story for the X-Men, but by setting the story in the sixties, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it places the team in historical context, giving them a back story. This is a very geeky thing. But is it a good thing?

The answer would seem to be obvious. Geeks have been complaining for years that these films are not being made by true believers who love and respect the source material and therefore much coolness was being missed. And what did make it onto the screen was altered in uninteresting ways. And yet, the elements that go into making a whole and satisfying movie are different than what goes into making a story arc extending over several issues of a comic book. Maybe the task is best left up to film professionals who are experienced in the art of adaptation.

They mess it up so often, though. The approach they took with Daredevil is exactly right but that movie is so bad. The first two X-Men movies, made by people who were not fans were tremendous, mostly because Brian Singer is great filmmaker. The third one, made by a Hollywood veteran with nary a whiff of geekiness, was a great disappointment.

Matthew Vaughn is a great filmmaker and he seems to have a special affinity for the superhero genre. Kickass was a darn near perfect movie. It was adapted from a popular but hardly legendary graphic novel. Now Vaughn is dealing with the X-Men, one of the cornerstones of the Marvel universe. And he nails it.

X-Men First Class is mostly set in the sixties with some flashbacks to the forties. The first scene in a recreation of the first scene in X-Men where young Erik Lehnsherr, played by Bill Milner is separated from his parents in a concentration camp and using his powers of magnetism he almost pulls a gate off its moorings. The filmmakers build on that scene to introduce Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, a Nazi officer and closeted mutant who is looking for others like himself. In an attempt to bring those powers to the surface, he kills Erik’s mother. It works, but Erik is not the sort who forgives that sort of thing.

Likewise we catch a glimpse of the young Charles Xavier played by Laurence Belcher as he grows up privileged in Westchester. He is precocious and well on the way toward mastering his powers. He catches the young Mystique, played by Morgan Lily at that point and later by Jennifer Morris stealing food from the family kitchen and instead of turning her in, he has family adopt her.

Moving forward to the sixties, it turns out that Shaw is still alive, he’s managed to assemble a small team of mutants, most notably Emma Frost, a powerful telepath, played by January Jones. He has a fiendish master plan that involves starting a nuclear war that would destroy most regular people and boost the population of mutants. Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Erik, now played by Michael Fassbender has been hunting Shaw for twenty years, bent on revenge, but he still does not full control over his powers. Charles, now played by James McAvoy is just getting his doctorate and is recruited by the CIA to find Shaw and stop the war. The two meet and begin to assemble a team. By the end of the film, the team splits up into the two camps seen in the earlier X-Men films.

The great thing about Matthew Vaughn is that he understands all the elements of storytelling, especially how to do it efficiently. The training scenes in this movies serve at least three purposes. They advance the plot; they increase tension; and provide characterization. This film is long but briskly paced. The plot as described seems unpromising but it works, mostly because you care for the characters.

McAvoy and Fassbender are terrific. Not only do they breathe life into their characters but they recreate the chemistry that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had in the first films. The rest of the cast is equally terrific.

So is there a formula for bringing superheroes to the screen? No. It depends on the superhero and the vision and skill of the filmmakers. At this point I would trust Matthew Vaughn with anything (Maybe event the next Wolverine film. Please?)

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