There are bound to be fans of the X-Men saga who will be pleased with last weekend’s long-awaited prequel, X-Men: First Class. Although the film does breathe some new life into the sagging franchise, it’s emphatically not the fantastic film it could have been, and it most likely won’t age particularly well. Unimaginative dialogue, a subpar musical score, rushed character development and a perplexing — if not downright unnecessary — historical backdrop are among the numerous elements holding it back.
First Class tells multiple stories, including the formation of the team of mutants which will later be known as the X-Men and the burgeoning friendship between future enemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The supernaturally powerful pair work together to fight Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant with the power to absorb and wield kinetic energy, bent on taking over the world. All of this takes place during the 1960s with a Cold War backdrop.
The film is hardly a notch above average, owing its strengths to specific moments as opposed to the film as a whole. Most of the fight scenes are highly entertaining, mainly because of the villainous henchmen unleashing their powers. There are also a handful of comedic moments, but aside from a hilarious cameo, nothing is too memorable. The pace of the plot is decent, although it suffers early on from quick and numerous scene jumps.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the exploration of the friendship between Xavier and Magneto. Xavier helps Magneto realize his true potential in his control of metal, and despite their different personalities, they work well together. Yet it’s clear to viewers their friendship is doomed because of their oil-and-water ideologies. The original movies gave the impression that Xavier and Magneto had been friends for many years, not for the short period of time suggested by First Class.
As for the primary villain, Sebastian Shaw easily has one of the most impressive and dangerous powers. But he seems content spending most of the film lounging around in tuxedos and summer whites in extravagant rooms sipping champagne. Shaw is somewhat flat and generically evil for a villain and for most of the film it seems as though he is on autopilot. If he were a bit more self-motivated, Shaw could have easily achieved world domination in minutes.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is seeing how old characters are interpreted and re-imagined. Xavier is believable as an easy-going, arrogant, and naively optimistic young man who is fond of the word “groovy” — unfortunately, the use of that word is one of the only hints that the film is set in the ’60s. Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) inner conflict and insecurity over her blue, scaly mutant form and Magneto’s confidence and adamant opposition to “hiding” help explain their future relationship.
Fassbender steals the show as a young Magneto. Charismatic, athletic and reminiscent of James Bond, he is absolutely mesmerizing. He is a conflicted, well-rounded character and contains the seeds of wisdom his older self possesses in the original films. He is haunted by his childhood experience in a concentration camp during the Holocaust and is consumed by the need to protect mutants from a similar fate as well as the desire for revenge. He even spends an early part of the movie hunting down former Nazis.
In fact, First Class would have been better off had it solely concerned itself with Magneto’s personal journey and experiences. Instead, the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to the forefront of the film during the climatic battle, and it is exasperatingly needless. Anyone who has opened a U.S. history book and paid attention knows how the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, and since First Class is not a creation of Quentin Tarantino’s personal brand of history rewriting (see Inglourious Basterds), the Cuban Missile Crisis is a silly and predictable plot device.
Another one of the film’s major flaws is the musical score by Henry Pryce Jackman. Despite his work on numerous films, in First Class he comes off as an amateur with a personal grudge against subtlety. The music is often loud, overdramatic and it overpowers whatever is happening in the scene instead of letting the story speak for itself.
It’s hard to be overly harsh in critcizing First Class. It is what it is — a summer action popcorn flick. It could have been something great,but ends up being not bad. The possibility of a sequel is intriguing; there is plenty of room for improvement and First Class has just enough of a solid foundation for the writers and director to build upon successfully. Though the film failed to capture any genuine essence of the ’60s, suffered from a bombastic, distracting musical score, subpar dialogue and bad historical backdrop, it’s paced well, contains a host of mutants with interesting powers and has just enough awesome Fassbender scenes to make it worth seeing in theaters.