We have the X-Men franchise to thank for the last decade’s numbing proliferation of comic book superhero movies. And so we should hold it to a higher standard. Like Charles Xavier in the film—who scolds his first colloquium after the adolescent superhumans in it get too rowdy—we should expect better.
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy strut their ’60s duds in X-Men: First Class, as the idealistic young freedom fighters who later become Magneto and Professor X.
Such as? How about all the superheroes finally together in one movie, each with at least one good trick and one good one-liner? If anyone could make that happen, it would be dauntless to X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn and his mighty screenwriting team. After all, their collective credits include Kick-Ass, Thor, the first two X-Men films and even, according to IMDb, a “production polish” of Snakes on a Plane.
X-Men: First Class has some artificial flavors—corn, cheese, Kevin Bacon bits—but also some natural advantages in James McAvoy as the learned telepath Xavier (who later becomes Professor X), and Michael Fassbender as his tormented friend Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto). First Class is the origin story of how the pair, once great friends who shared in the discovery of their superpowers, formed a rivalry that would help define the X-Men universe.
With reluctant shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) tagging along for comely companionship and cliché mitigation, it’s fun to see a randy Xavier hitting on pre-mod Oxford birds, working his innate nobility and genius gene theory, while Lehnsherr extracts information and dental fillings in order to go suavely about hunting down hidden Nazis. It would be fine to spend the whole movie with just X and Magneto, each well adapted to the Ian Fleming-style espionage thriller already underway and presided over by a CIA agent (Rose Byrne), who sets a tone early on by stripping down to lingerie in her very first scene.
The 1960s setting does clarify the movie’s top priorities: apocalyptic brinksmanship and groovy clothes. And sure, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a nice touch, but there was also that whole Civil Rights thing going on at the time. Shouldn’t that matter to the mutants? If this world has room for Magneto and Professor X, it also should have room for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
But we have a class to assemble. We need to develop the competing styles of tutelage championed by Xavier and Magneto. We have subplots and sub-characters and new franchise trajectories to establish, mutant superpowers to demonstrate (prehensile toes, dragonfly wings, weird fiery hula hoops) and January Jones to enable. For that matter, why not just bring everybody on? The Avengers. The Watchmen. The Toxic Avenger. Pluto Nash.
X-Men: First Class doesn’t disappoint, exactly, but it doesn’t raise the bar either. For all its restless recombinations of allies and opponents, it only just stokes our hope for the superhero movie to end all superhero movies.