When I kept thinking of all the big superhero movies coming out this summer, X-Men: First Class was the one that always slipped my mind. Between Marvel’s next two entries in the road to Avengers, and DC’s first big-budget movie of a hero that’s not Superman or Batman, it seemed that another X-Men movie was just going to get lost in the shuffle. So to say First Class went well and above my expectations is an understatement.
The plot takes place in 1962, focusing on the Cuban Missile Crisis. It turns out that it’s being manipulated by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). In response, the government calls in Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). After an early attempt to stop Shaw, they also pick up Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who has a far more personal motivation for wanting to stop him.
I guess the biggest question has to be addressed first: Xavier and Erik. Needless to say, McAvoy and Fassbender are stepping into some very big shoes by taking over roles that have basically been ingrained as Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Instead of trying to copy the roles, they instead make them their own, mainly thanks to the excellent script. Xavier is less of the all-knowing mentor and more of the rollicking fresh-out-of-college type. An early scene has him using his mental powers and intelligence about mutations to flirt with a girl in a bar. Many sequences of exposition work thanks to McAvoy’s really charming performance. Erik really ends up being the focus of the film, though. We know he’s going to turn from Xavier and become Magneto by the end, but it’s how he gets there that makes it interesting. From the start, he’s equally sympathetic and fierce. You like him and understand his actions, even as he goes further off the edge. When he makes a major decision at the end that truly leads to his breaking apart from Xavier, you know exactly why he’s doing it. There were talks for a while of making a Magneto origins movie. This tells me more than that possibly could have.
The other major plotline in the movie involves Raven, aka Mystique, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who share the fact that their mutations affect their appearance. Mystique to me was always “that shapeshifter in the Brotherhood” for the first two X-Men movies. She was a cool character, but she wasn’t too important to the plot. Here, her plot is one of the best parts about the movie. Her character is incredibly developed. It could have been a simple “I just want to be normal” thing. Instead, we see far different influences from Xavier and Erik, one leading her to be normal, one leading her to be the mutant she is. The romantic aspect of her with Hank just adds to this. Even knowing where she goes in the end doesn’t necessarily mean you know how her character will go here, which is how a prequel should work. It adds a great emotional aspect to this.
And with all its character development, it still has some great action sequences and special effects. I can’t spoil the final action sequence, but it’s easily the best example of it, with huge setpieces, good special effects, and huge stakes. Shaw’s plan wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie, but it really adds to the movie’s 60s-styled charm. There’s a submarine that has a lavish lounge in the middle of it. It’s silly, but in that way where it’s just adding a bit of fun to the movie. I can almost recommend it not just as a superhero movie but also as a sleek sci-fi spy movie.
This is a franchise that needed some new blood, and it got it in a ton of ways. With further character development, a new villain, new actors, and a shift to the 60s, they’ve made a far more exciting and more interesting X-Men movie than I was expecting or could’ve possibly hoped for.