When Fox studios announced they were doing a new X-Men film back in 2009, I was worried. The first and second X-films were amazing (though I agree with the complaints of many fans that they were too Wolverine-heavy), but the third, Last Stand, was an absolute mess that squandered the soft-ball setup of the Dark Phoenix storyline that Singer handed them at the end of X2. Last Stand suffered from an extreme case of ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-itis’.
My misgivings deepened when I realized that the movie wouldn’t include the ‘first class’ that comic fans knew, but a hodge-podge lineup that included Beast (the only actual member of the original first class of X-Men), Banshee, Havok (the younger brother of original X-Man Cyclops in the comics), Mystique, Darwin, and Angel (but not the Warren Worthington Angel, but a sexy female played by Lenny Kravitz’s beautiful daughter, Zoë). I had no idea who Darwin or Angel were until I looked them up on Wikipedia.
However, hearing that they were setting it in the 1960s and focusing on the friendship between Charles Xavier (who would become Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (destined to become Magneto), my curiosity was piqued. When Matthew Vaughn (director of such films as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and Kick-Ass) signed on to direct, I was really intrigued! I’ve owned Snatch and Lock, Stock… on dvd for years and highly enjoyed Kick-Ass so I was certain that whatever this movie turned out to be, it was likely to be entertaining, at least.
To me, signing on James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles and Erik respectively was a stroke of pure genius. The two are both fantastic actors and it’s clear from the get-go that they did their homework on the characters and enjoyed playing them. There’s a real tendency of some actors to enter the mindset of ‘go big or go home’ when it comes to playing a superhero that has gotten many an otherwise fine thespian into trouble (George Clooney, I’m looking at you).
Now, to be fair, it also seems that until recently, a lot of writers and directors didn’t seem to take the superhero genre all that seriously. Like them or lump them, credit is due to both Bryan Singer’s X-Men films and Christopher Nolan’s new darker take on Batman for the respect that superheroes are getting these days.
Despite my misgivings, when I left the theater after seeing it, I knew I’d finally gotten the sort of X-Film I’d always hoped for. Like the more recent team-up film, The Avengers, all the characters had their moment in the sun and a chance to use their powers. We got a friggin’ aerial combat scene, for crying out loud!
However, what really makes First Class shine, in my opinion, is the strong portrayals by MacAvoy and Fassbender.
The two characters are such a study in contrasts that one might justifiably wonder how they can find enough common ground to be friends. Charles had a childhood filled with the privilege that only extreme wealth can bring while Erik, as we see at the start of both the first X-Men and First Class, had a very different existence. As a young boy, he had the misfortune to be born a Jew in Nazi Germany and witnessed his mother killed in front of him to provoke him to access his powers.
MacAvoy’s Charles is charming (and occasionally smarmy), warm, and genuinely wants to help these extraordinary people that wind up in his charge. The scene where he makes himself a human target for Havok and tells him “I have complete and utter faith in you” (40 seconds in the clip) is 100% pure, unadulterated Professor X. Xavier truly believes in his students and will do whatever it takes to give them the confidence they need to learn to use their powers responsibly.
Erik, on the other hand, is still very angry and looking for vengeance against the men who destroyed his family. He doesn’t like or trust ‘normal’ humans because of what he endured in the camps.
The difference between the men is illustrated beautifully by this exchange between them:
Professor Charles Xavier: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.
Erik Lehnsherr: I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.
Erik and Charles are, to borrow from a Star Wars meme, the duct tape that holds the X-Men universe together; the dark side and the light side. They both want the same thing, for the persecution of mutants to end. However, Charles, the Jedi-esque idealist, wants humans and mutants to live in harmony while Erik, the Sith-esque realist, is certain that this will never come to pass.
Their friendship is beautiful in its brevity and the schism between them heartbreaking in many ways.
I, for one, will be in line when the sequel comes out, if only to see more of this version of Charles and Erik!