X-Men: First Class: A Change of Color

Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) chomps chocolate in a commodious suite at a Nazi death camp. Edith Piaf plays in the background as Shaw criticizes Hitler for his goals, though not his methods. In other words, he agrees there is a race of supermen, just not that they are denoted by hair color. You will know the man of tomorrow by his butterfly wings, or his size 27 feet, or his hula hoop lasers.

X-Men: First Class starts with Nazis. So did X-Men, if you’ll remember, and that’s an important piece to the whole X-Men story: Bryan Singer, in 2000, had the task of starting not only Marvel’s entire X-Men universe but the modern superhero genre and he did it, in his very first scene, at Auschwitz. If First Class should feel like its series, it should know why we would start there, and it does. It knows that we’re dealing with the problems of thinking you’re better than others, or that certain people need to be controlled, or whatever it is that regimes think.

But its journey to be different from its predecessors is controlled too tightly by the requirement to be enough like them to fit in. This creates a contrast that doesn't work: the result is a movie that mentions issues, builds them up, but tries to lighten them. Mathew Vaughn’s First Class ultimately feels like a respite, for good or bad, from Singer’s moodier contemplations on political annuity and leather fashion. It tries to be like them if it must, and not forsake them if it can.

Vaughn makes First Class more in the traditions of its material; he’s splitting the difference between Singer and Stan Lee. This doesn’t make the other films better or worse, but it can expose their logic. Vaughn has made something with a little more indulgence and color but in a way it’s also more reasonable – instead of taking a team of varied and colorful heroes and talking down to their fashion choices, or asking us to feel very seriously afraid of a terrorist with a tongue like a toad, Vaughn takes all the heroic color variety at face value. He reinstates the yellow jumpers. It makes First Class the most like its comics. But does it work in the context of the world the series has already established?

The best thing that the looser tone of First Class does to the series is take the edge off its most nagging problems, though it still inherits them. Power levels are an issue in X-Men films because they challenge your ability to accept the results of its conflicts as a serious truth: I’m always asking why the really strong heroes don’t just end the battles instantly. This doesn’t matter so much in First Class because by deflecting seriousness away from the superpowers, the conflict between the ideals of its characters becomes as important as it should be. Unfortunately, conflict is more important to First Class than definition or discussion: it’s more like it’s about the idea of the ideals than the ideals themselves; they come up to be fought over by name, but they never really get tackled. Vaughn lightens up the light stuff and keeps us talking about the issues, but he has trouble making one inform the other.

The world this time around fits more comfortably around the X-Men than the modern one. It’s the 1960s, the era that actually generated the X-Men comics, so splicing them into a groovy yellow suit was never easier. The mutant issue isn’t even known yet. As Kennedy sweats over Cuba and the world swoons on its counterculture high, the presence of the mutants has a bite to it, like it really could alter the balance of history. Whether this is the real world or a potentially alternate one is also a clever contention. Like James Bond, the X-Men are backstage superheroes, slinking in and out of important events before anyone’s had time to consider the economic ramifications of a man that can fly by shouting at the ground.

And there are ramifications. But they do not increase in direct proportion to the number of players. Vaughn smacks some color back into the X-Men’s cheeks; you can tell he wants them to be more fun. But how many of these guys do we need, really?

This review will have to take a moment to do a bit of cataloging, which brings up the same balance issue every X-Men film has had. This prequel is sometimes so irreverently literal that it speaks introductions into existence, like ice breakers at a party, of new characters entering the scene, regardless of their actual importance. The problem is that so many of them are defined by their powers only, and for lack of other motivation, the script has to set them up for us less like a movie ensemble and more like those diagrammatic inserts in Russell Stover candy boxes. It’s a great advantage to have so much material to draw from, but the screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn from a Sheldon Turner story sometimes seems like it’s just taking roll. So that’s what I have to do.

James McAvoy plays Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart’s character) with an endearing bit of subterfuge; he’s not as numinous as Stewart but his snarky eyebrows and perfect, literate lips can at times make his older counterpart seem half asleep by comparison. Michael Fassbender transforms Magneto in the opposite direction, rigidifying Ian McKellan’s theatrical anger: it’s well-performed but jarring, too Batman-like for that twinkly thespian in Singer’s films, motioning at green screens with the gestural confidence of a kid that actually believes he has superpowers. Jennifer Lawrence takes the chameleonic Mystique from Rebecca Romijn with the comic book logic that shapeshifting equals slow aging; one wonders if it’s in the comic or just a construct to get another familiar face in the prequel. That wouldn’t matter at all, not one bit, if Lawrence was interesting in the part. But she wears a pall of maturity over her young eyes even as she plays a reptilian anime girl that kills people with her feet; she’s like one of the Bubblegum Crisis babes crossed with a hall monitor. She doesn’t have Romijn’s playful cruelty, and she’s in a situation where that would be even more important to flesh out. She contains that terrible feeling that a prequel can get, that there’s really no way this person would ever become the one we know already. January Jones plays Emma Frost like the confidante of a Bond villain, the most guileless of the bunch. She exposes herself for this part, sometimes down to her sparkly garters.

Is that it? Nicholas Hoult plays a shaggier Blue Beast; Zoe Kravitz has bug wings; Lucas Till has laser hula hoops; Jason Flemyng is a teleporting devil; Caleb Jones screams at the ground in order to fly; Alex Gonzalez creates tornadoes in his palms. Rose Byrne is an underused human in the mix.

Few of these characters will return for sequels, so it’s a bit unnerving for me to watch First Class now knowing that we’ll dump these off in a movie or two to hastily make room for ones we recognize. What difference does it make if one of them has a brother or misses his mommy? It’s hard to let Henry Jackman’s score have its big moments when very few of these people are worth investing in. I haven’t much bothered with the motivations that drive them because they could fit on a post-it note. Magneto hates Nazis. Xavier wants to live in peace. There's so much colorful cushioning around them that it never gets much more than that; the stellar acting and careful nudges by the script's keywords just make you think that it does. For most people, that will be enough.

Is there fun along the way? More than usual: the 60s offers a perfect chance for some nifty twists on Singer’s normal strategy of rejecting the comic book trappings as though they drag him down (though they still make fun of words like “X-Men,” like Vaughn’s still too cool for mutant school). Too much crosscutting and unconvincing CGI turns cluttered action scenes into confusing sugar highs of unnecessary characters doing the one thing each of them can do, all in sequence, like the Muppaphone of action movies. But Vaughn's high-energy style makes a lot of this fine: he even gets some life out of the comic-book style panel transitions that everyone was so offended by when Ang Lee used them in HulkThey happen in a literal training montage in First Class, something so corny that you think it must be satirical but played so straight that it becomes classy (I think Vaughn's Kingsman also played on this line but tended to overstep it).

Stylistically, First Class is an espresso shot of 60s, full of classy suits and lacey panties and cool cars and a glossy look that only really works when you're being nostalgic for something. From the perspective of the greater story, it really has only one problem, which is that problem with demonstrating the issues through the conflict that I mentioned but amplified by their importance for Xavier and Magneto across this series. The script obligatorily says that Xavier and Magneto become best friends and then have a disagreement, but is what’s presented here really the seed of a life-spanning rivalry that will tip the powers of the globe in five decades’ time? Is that core of the film series, that reason this movie exists, really the primary goal of that small platoon of screenwriters? I don’t think so. They don't forget about it -- in a scene or two, such as one in which Xavier helps Magneto harness his powers, it gets downright sweet. But the movie has so much extra stuff that it might as well be the first in its series. That's actually the way it works the best.

And yet, First Class is about as good as prequels get, if Star Wars or even X-Men itself is the standard – Vaughn soars so high above X-Men Origins: Wolverine that he loses sight of it completely. Prequels are a concept flawed from conception, since they take characters introduced perfectly in their own films and re-introduce them somewhere else, without being able to color outside the narrative lines. Graciously, First Class knows where it’s headed and what it has to accomplish. It does it with class, if not subtlety. Though it can’t really do more than its predecessors by design, Wolverine rightly tells this film to “Fuck off”; that’s Singer’s aesthetic knowing where it’s useful, or at least, it’s Vaughn knowing where to keep it.

I’ve never known Wolverine or his buddies, as Singer envisioned them, to be this much good fun: this is X-Men, as some people expect it to be, stripped down to its two-color garters and hula hoop lasers. So why am I wishing it meant a little more? Singer knew we’d never really leave Auschwitz with this concept of genetic difference and it required a certain strength of character to realize it. How much you like seeing Vaughn try to leave it behind will depend on how much you thought it was the best place to start to begin with.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Matthew Vaughn

Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (screenplay)

Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer (story)

Charles Xavier/Professor X James McAvoy
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto Michael Fassbender
Moira MacTaggert Rose Byrne
Raven Darkholme/Mystique Jennifer Lawrence
Emma Frost January Jones
Hank McCoy/Beast Nicholas Hoult
Sebastian Shaw Kevin Bacon

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