Summer Blockbuster Friday #19: ‘X-Men: First Class (2011)’- Throwback Review

What’s the Story: In the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, a mutant named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets a fellow mutant named Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). Despite their vastly different backgrounds — Charles grew up with a wealthy family, while Erik lost his parents at Auschwitz — the two become close friends. As the world teeters on the brink of a nuclear war, Charles and Erik with other mutants join forces to save humanity. However, a situation soon tears the friends apart.

X-Men: First Class marked the second comic book movie released in during the summer movie season of 2011. X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003) gave ultimate fans the big screen treatment it deserved, and become some of the most popular superhero movies of the early 2000s. But a cloud of depression loomed over our heads when X-Men III: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) left a sour taste in our mouths that were not only disappointments but plain bad, especially the latter. Then hearing the next film is going to start from the beginning, it sounded fine enough to see. At this point, X-Men: First Class can either aim high or low for the series. And what has got to be the perfect example of combining a superhero movie and a prequel, this is what you call a win.

Fans had every right to be nervous after coming off two drinkers that already ruined hopes of seeing anything good from this team again. However, with Matthew Vaughn, coming off of Kick-Ass a year prior, as director brought some new life that wasn’t difficult to buy throughout. Something was interesting in putting its established universe into a more grounded style that made it more in reality unlike from before with mutants involved in the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another interesting aspect some might not know is this started as two movies: An origin story on Magneto and a story on how the X-Men formed. We were probably done with Origin movies since one bombed with critics, so Fox went in a different direction and incorporated elements of the Magneto movie in here instead. When two worlds collide, you create greatness, right?

When working as a prequel to the original trilogy, this was more of a better setup than what we got with the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Seeing how this team came together could’ve made for an uninteresting time, but the film does a great job at making you care for these characters that probably wasn’t explored much in the other installments. Seeing those familiar and slightly new heroes together where they thought they were the only ones shows even those with special powers can change or save the world.

But if there’s one thing positive to come out from all of this are the performances of both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier/ Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/ Magneto. No one will ever deny how Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen made their portrayals of the iconic characters to life, but in terms of casting their younger selves, this is perfect with nobody else in mind to play them. Seeing how these people with distinct personalities paths crossed and made this partnership in putting together a team of mutants was better than I imagined. Out of the both of them, Fassbender stood out in almost every scene overshadowing McAvoy since his complex performance as a young Magneto is given a tragic backstory when he was a kid and we get to see him hunting Nazis, with all this rage kept inside him. And McAvoy somehow made Charles Xavier even cooler. Not just seeing the character with a full head of hair, but seeing him as this young genius while also being quite the ladies’ man. Was it easy to look into their friendship in just one movie when they’ll become enemies later on? Absolutely.

Jennifer Lawrence was still new to me back then, and she didn’t do a bad job playing Raven/ Mystique, the blue shape-shifting mutant who’s close to Charles and is someone who isn’t confident in embracing her beauty and being herself. This was when she was probably wasn’t tired of the role yet. But you also have Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/ Beast, Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, Lucas Till as Cyclops’ brother Alex Summer/ Havok, and probably my first watching Zoë Kravitz is anything as Angel. While it’s easy to see the others in the background, this is foremost Charles and Erik’s story.

Never did I think Kevin Bacon would make for an entertaining villain in this universe, but he was great as Sebastian Shaw. Since I haven’t read the comics, this wasn’t a villain I was familiar with, yet it was awesome to compel any scene he’s in, especially when showcasing his power of absorbing energy and ultimately having a plan to start World War III in what I thought was strange casting first hearing about it. Do the other bad guys Dee a bit sidelined? A bit, but I thought Azazel (Jason Flemyng) was cool; my first time watching was wondering if he’s related to Nightcrawler because of similar abilities only to find out they are in the comics.

The question has to be asked: What makes this a great summer Blockbuster, let alone a significant addition inside the superhero genre. The X-Men franchise has been a staple of the season since the original and it’s clear this got the biggest positive response since the sequel. The action never disappoints as Vaughn knows how to keep them energetic and keeping the viewers invested with what each character is doing in a fun fashion and not taking it too seriously. The third act was the most exciting where we’re watching the X-Men try to stop Shaw’s team and that was when the film kicked it up a notch. This even offers one of my all-time favorite deaths that hasn’t left my head ever since I saw it. Plus, the “cameo” included here is just perfect and one that never gets old.

Can I find any flaws? I have a couple of problems that still bug me to this day. Everyone can agree January Jones’ performance as Emma Frost was just dry throughout and every scene she’s in makes me feel like they miscast her when someone not wooden can deliver her dialogue with emotion. And this might sound like a nitpick, but the makeup on Hoult when he becomes Beast never sat right with me; though it’s better in the later movies.

When I first saw this in the theater a few weeks after it came out (probably wasn’t in a hurry to see it), I thought it was good. Upon subsequent re-watches, if I was in the mood, it gradually gets better and it’s understandable why it’s popular amongst the crowd. For what I thought was going to be an unnecessary sequel with them not knowing what it’ll do to get us invested again, but this is where they got it right. How much do I love it, I honestly consider this one of my favorite superhero movies of the last decade; and its follow-up, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was close to even being better.

Final Thoughts: X-Men: First Class made this franchise great again with an amazing comic book movie prequel that ended up becoming an immense surprise at the time of its release. From Matthew Vaughn’s stylish direction and outstanding performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, I still love it 10 years later.

Grade: A-

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