Fox takes a chance with a prequel that changes the course of the series.
After the meh-fest that was X-Men: The Last Stand, a prequel was the best possible direction to go. I wasn't sure about this back in 2011, honestly. A movie without the franchise's most popular character (Wolverine) and recasts of its two anchors (Professor X and Magneto)?
My hesitancy was misplaced, however. The recasts injected some much-needed life into the series and allowed two fully formed characters to return to a time when they were still developing the ideals that would have them verbally sparring decades later. Which brings us to the first reason this film works: James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are superb as young versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), respectively.
Fassbender in particular does a lot of heavy lifting here, and it's not hard to see that this film was the end result of a planned Magneto prequel that never came to fruition. Magneto is also a key part in most of the film's action sequences, which are the best in the series so far.
|"Bitchy resting face" is just another one of Emma Frost's mutant powers.|
You have to give credit to the writers, director Matthew Vaughn, and the cast for ensuring that other storylines resonate, too. In particular, Xavier's friendship with Mystique is very well done, as Jennifer Lawrence quickly makes you forget all about Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as the blue shape-shifter. A nearly realized romance between Beast and Mystique is about as sad as this series gets, with Nicholas Hoult really nailing Hank's conflicted feelings about his mutant gift/curse.
There are missteps, sure. The middle act drags slightly and Beast in his hairy form just looks like a cat with a mullet, or the Teen Wolf dad, take your pick. The tie-in to historical events seems a little cheesy, although it's not a deal-breaker. January Jones is pretty flat as Emma Frost, even if the role does call for a detached take on the character.
|The resemblance is...wait for it...UNCANNY.|
Still, there's so much to love here. Logan's cameo is great and the use of younger characters really drives home the struggles the young mutants have with feeling alienated and wanting to fit in. Meanwhile, Kevin Bacon is reliably detestable as the film's real villain.
The social commentary, as always, is a bit on the nose (Hank says, "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell" after revealing that he's a mutant). However, Magneto's insistence to never be at the mercy of those who are "just following orders" again resonates and gives yet another great glimpse into the character's motivations.
Overall, X-Men: First Class was a triumph, especially considering that Vaughn had never directed a big budget action film, the third film was such a dud, and the cast consisted of mostly lesser-known performers. This one would succeed in righting the franchise's ship and give X-fans a reason to be hopeful about future installments.