Hollywood is getting better at prequels. There have been some pretty good ones in recent years: Star Trek, Batman Begins and Casino Royale are all excellent examples of great movies that give us the back story on some of our favorite characters. (The Star Wars prequels? Not so much.)
Now comes X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the beloved X-Men trilogy. Yes, there was a movie called X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that can be technically called a prequel because it focuses on the character of Wolverine and his beginnings, but it was so bad that it really doesn’t count. X-Men: First Class won’t suffer that same fate.
To put it simply: X-Men: First Class is a first-rate summer action movie. It’s popcorn entertainment at its finest, with some caviar thrown in. The caviar comes in the form of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. These two actors could read the phonebook and make it sexy, smart and studly.
Still, it was no easy task—Fassbender and McAvoy had big shoes to fill, as they were assigned to play the younger versions of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, two legendary British Shakespearean actors who absolutely nailed their portrayals of Magneto and Professor X, respectively, in the original X-Men trilogy. Fassbender, for his part, seems like an actor who is not intimidated by anything, and he plays the character of the young Magneto (Erik) with McKellen’s class and determination, but he adds his own natural Fassbender spices, namely a contained rage and smoldering will. Fassbender may be relatively new to American audiences, but his few performances that we have seen have been memorable, including a scene-stealing turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Rochester in Jane Eyre. You will see more of him, I promise, and you will like it.
As Erik/Magneto’s opposite, James McAvoy is the perfect actor to play Professor Charles Xavier. Contrary to Erik’s angry and headstrong personality, Charles is contained, calm and level-headed, and McAvoy lends his natural sweetness, boyish charm and humor to the character tasked with containing the powerfully out-of-control Erik.
The relationship between Erik and Charles is the glue to the X-Men franchise, which is why this film spends most of its time on it. It is a connection that is so much deeper and more complicated than simple “good vs. evil.” These two share a unique bond and a common history, as “freaks” who have a sense of greater purpose. Eventually, however, their mutual paths diverge and they end up on opposite sides of the moral fence, and it is both captivating and thrilling to see these great actors play out a philosophical and spiritual parting of the ways. Superhero stories are known for featuring characters with ethical, moral or spiritual dilemmas—they’ve just never been this well-acted. What a treat.
While the nuances of Erik and Charles’ relationship is the heart of this film, X-Men: First Class is not just about them. There are other characters and stories to tell and, sadly, this is where the film occasionally toys with your interest level. The secondary story in X-Men: First Class is of the first group of mutants recruited by Erik and Charles to form a type of mutant army, needed to fight the evil Sebastian Shaw (played with unfortunate campiness by Kevin Bacon), who is trying to ignite a nuclear war. These youngsters, some of whom would turn out to be characters we would see in later X-Men movies, are, for the most part, uninteresting and forgettable.
The one I do remember is Mystique, played by the rising young star, Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence was an Oscar nominee for Best Actress last year and her talent is non-negotiable. Despite getting occasionally upstaged by her own makeup, Lawrence is endearing and holds her own. Quite an achievement in such illustrious company.
No such comparisons can be made for January Jones, however, who decidedly will never be up for a Best Actress Oscar. Jones, best known for playing Betty Draper on the television show Mad Men, plays the sultry villainess Emma Frost. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you about her character, except for the fact that she wears a lot of tight-fitting, low-cut outfits. I know, I know…some people aren’t complaining.
Maybe Jones was there—and costumed—to distract the viewer from Kevin Bacon’s attempt at playing a comic book baddie. Look, I love Kevin Bacon as much as the next guy, but it’s hard enough to ask an actor to deliver the corny lines reserved for the villain in a comic book movie, let alone ask him to speak believably in different languages. Can we please leave the languages to Michael Fassbender? And playing over the top? Just not up Bacon’s alley. It’s tough out there for an evil genius, if even Kevin Bacon comes off as—sorry—hammy.
Still, X-Men: First Class is great fun. Fassbender and McAvoy give you the brains, and director Matthew Vaughn’s fast-paced, electric action sequences give you the brawn. It’s nice to see yet another prequel that makes you say: “more, please.”