Something that’s been missing for me since comic book movies became Hollywood’s predominant summer revenue generator was the inherent sense of silliness found in most comic books. Sure, Batman and Superman and the X-Men and Spiderman and all the other superheroes have potential as characters of significant gravitas, but the fact of the matter is that, for much of the history of the medium, they weren’t. So I was surprised when Sebastian Shaw, the villain of X-Men: First Class made his getaway from an angry Magneto and a curious United States Coast Guard in a nuclear submarine that just happened to be hidden by a yacht, and I was pretty much giddy when he asked Emma Frost to get some ice for his drink, which meant surfacing the sub so she could break some off of an iceberg.
James McAvoy: Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender: Erik/Magneto
Rose Byrne: Moira McTaggart
Jennifer Lawrence: Raven/Mystique
Kevin Bacon: Sebastian Shaw
January Jones: Emma Frost
Nicholas Hoult: Hank McCoy/Beast
Far Fucking Out
I’ve always appreciated that goofiness in comic books, as a sense of humor made superpowers and the constant threat of global destruction go down a little easier. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), for example, believes that mutants are, as Stan Lee used to proclaim, the Children of the Atom, and as such stand to inherit the Earth. He and his group of rogue mutants, the Hellfire Club, aim to ensure this happens sooner rather than later, as he orchestrates the Cuban Missile Crisis, hoping to plunge the United States and Russia into thermonuclear war.
The world at large isn’t aware of the existence of mutants, who, by and large, are unaware of each other. Shaw’s club, for example, has four members at any given time, and most of the mutants in this film who have some sort of physical defect can hide them with a pair of shoes or, in the case of Angel, by spinning some story about drinking so much that a giant tattoo of a housefly’s wings suddenly seemed a good idea. But it’s 1960, and the world is changing about as fast as the human genome. If Shaw’s going to put together a team of mutants, so will the CIA. They turn to young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a recent Oxford graduate whose thesis was on genetic mutation to ask if it’s possible that the mutants he discusses in his thesis may already exist. They do. He is a telepath, and his best friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is a shapeshifter whose natural skin color is blue.
In trying to apprehend Shaw on his yacht, Xavier meets Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor with the power to magnetically manipulate metallic objects. Lehnsherr unwittingly sets the story in motion, as Shaw was once a Nazi officer (though it doesn’t seem that he’s German or that he particularly cares about the Nazi agenda) and, from his office, he saw young Erik bending the gates of the concentration camp as he was separated from his family. Shaw, also a mutant, wants to experiment on Erik in an effort to maximize mutant potential and, in the process, has Erik’s mother killed. After World War II, Lehnsherr makes killing Shaw his reason for being, and Xavier, rather brilliantly, observes that if Shaw can be part of a team, so can Lehnsherr. And so the X-Men are born.
Beyond Charles, Erik, and Raven, the First Class includes: Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who is super smart, super agile and, eventually, is covered in a thick coat of blue fur; Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), who flies like a housefly and spits what appear to be small meteorites, because bulimia isn’t a good mutant ability; Sean “Banshee” Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), who can scream really loud; Armando “Darwin” Nuñoz (Edi Gathegi), who has the bizarre mutant ability of “adapting to survive;” and Alex “Havok” Summers (Lucas Till), who hurls hula hoops of brightly colored kinetic energy. Beyond their abilities and nicknames, not much is known about the team, who don’t get a lot of time to evolve (haw haw) as characters. It’s just as well. The film trusts that you’ve either read the comic books and know who these people are, or that you just came to see stuff get blown up good and don’t particularly care who the mutants are as long as they get the job done. They, and Shaw’s less impressive Hellfire Club, get the job done just fine.
Besides, this isn’t really a movie about the X-Men, the Cold War, or Kevin Bacon’s fabulous attire. That’s all background noise in establishing the main rivalry of the franchise, between Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (a name I’ve always felt was a poor P.R. move) and Professor X’s X-Men (a name that’s nothing if not slightly egotistical). Yes, there’s the Cuban missile crisis, and yes, both Beast and Mystique debate whether they want to go through life with blue skin and gigantic feet, but that’s all a matter of filling the time between Xavier and Lehnshherr’s meeting and separation, not over the plot of the film, but over their ideology.
The movie also trusts that you know the moral differences between Professor X and Magneto, which is more fair than expecting you to know who “Riptide” and “Azarel” are, which means that the movie spends a lot of time on recruiting, training, and, ultimately, fighting. Disappointing, since literally every other superhero movie has that stuff down to a science. But when there’s not a war going on, McAvoy and Fassbender do most of the film’s heavy lifting. McAvoy brings the right blend of compassion and cockiness to Xavier, and Fassbender should do one movie a year where he finds himself in a bar full of Nazis. Lawrence, who was so good in Winter’s Bone, doesn’t have much to do as Mystique, which is unfortunate, but seemingly the nature of being the woman in a superhero movie.
The charming retro effervescence of X-Men: First Class is the product of Matthew Vaughn, whose adaptation of Kick Ass was a flavorless, ultraviolent take on dark, “realistic” superheroics, and his shifting of the X-Men franchise from a loud, noisy, bland present day to a blissfully stereotyped 1960s represents not only a good lateral move for him, but for the Marvel’s mutant crew, who’ve spent their last two outings assaulting Alcatraz and battling atop nuclear reactors, but haven’t been particularly interesting since 2004. By shedding a lot of dead weight and daring to embrace some decidedly old-school cheese, X-Men: First Class takes a slight detour from well-established comic book movie tropes, and is much better for doing so.