It’s pretty clear to see that the characters featured in X-Men aren’t exactly, human (except for those who are). No, they’re Mutants, mutants with extraordinary powers, ones that allow them to do magnificent things for either the side of good, or that of evil. But have you ever wondered how all this came to pass, how Charles Xavier founded the X-Men and how Magneto came to be his great Nemesis? Neither have I, but for those who do want to know, you have 2 options. Either read the comics which you can find either online or in shops that sell comics, or you can just watch this film.
Released in 2011 by 20th Century Fox, Directed by Matthew Vaughn and Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner; X-Men: First Class is the fifth film in X-Men film series, and is the second spin-off from the main series. First Class goes in a different direction to the previous three films however, instead going back in time to tell the origins story and early history of the X-Men. The film is loosely based off the X-Men comic series First Class, and introduces several new characters into the series plus recasting a few others.
In 1944, at one of Hitler’s Jewish prison camps, young Erik Lensher shows off extraordinary powers when he bends a metal gate. This grabs the attention of Scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who kills Erik’s mother when he wouldn’t move a coin. This enrages Erik into destroying most of Schmidt’s lab. In New York meanwhile, young Charles Xavier discovers a blue skinned mutant called Raven stealing from his family’s kitchen and invites her to join his family. In 1962, Erik (Michael Fassbender) has now grown up and is pursuing Schmidt leaving a trail of destruction in both Switzerland and later Argentina. In Oxford, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) graduates from University with a Thesis on Mutation, and lives there with his now fostered sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). In Las Vegas meanwhile, CIA Agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is tracking army officer; Colonel Hendry (Glenn Morshower), when she discovers him talking to Klaus Schmidt, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw, along with his team of mutants Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng). Azazel teleports Hendry to the joint war room where he gives his support for placing nuclear weapons in Turkey. Needing more advice on the subject of Mutants, Moira goes to see Xavier in Oxford and invites him to the CIA and convince Director McCone (Matt Craven) that mutants exist, and another CIA officer (Oliver Platt) shows his support for them. Xavier and Moira locate Shaw on his private boat, just as Erik tries to kill him. Shaw escapes, and Erik is rescued by Xavier who jumps in the water to prevent him from drowning. At the CIA’s X Division, the group meet young scientist and mutant Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), whom Raven immediately begins to bond with. Erik tries to leave with documents about Shaw, but Xavier encourages him to stay. Using a machine built by Hank called Cerebro, Xavier and Erik recruit other mutants to the CIA X Division: Alex Summers (Lucas Till), Armando Munoz (Edi Gathegi), Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), and try to recruit one other who is less than interested.
One night, the young mutants show off their powers to one another and come up with codenames for themselves becoming; Havok, Darwin, Banshee, Angel respectively, with Raven choosing the name Mystique and giving Xavier and Magneto the names Professor X and Magneto. Believing they are unready to go to Russia to find Shaw with them, Erik, Xavier and Moira go to a senior Russian military officer’s (Rade Šerbedžija) house where only Emma shows up. Desperately wanting to find Shaw, Erik goes rogue, manages to break into the building and confront Emma, breaking her diamond form so that Xavier can read her mind. Inside he discovers Shaw’s plan to create a full on nuclear war and trigger the rise of mutant kind. Back at X Division meanwhile Shaw, Riptide and Azazel, find the young mutants and try to recruit them, successfully recruiting Angel to their side, and killing Darwin in the process. Wanting to avenge the death of Darwin, Xavier takes the others back to his childhood home where they all train and better master their own abilities. Havok gets better control of his thanks to a new suit, and Banshee can now fly. Hank meanwhile is busy trying to create a serum to look normal, which eventually causes a rift between him and Raven. Erik on the other hand is still struggling to get the best out of his abilities, when Xavier unlocks his mind however; he is able to do almost anything.
With some persuasion by Shaw, the USSR decides to deploy its Nuclear weapons in Cuba. Xavier and his team decide to try and stop it, with Erik only really wanting to do it to kill Shaw. Hank’s Serum to make him look human, fails and his real form, a blue furry Beast comes into full view. In Cuba, the navies of the USSR and the USA are poised ready to fight. Xavier’s team arrive, and using his telepathy, Xavier manages to blow up the Nuclear Cargo Ship halting World War 3. Shaw meanwhile has a backup plan to absorb the nuclear reactor core of his submarine and release it through himself. Using Banshee’s ability underwater, Erik is able to lift the submarine, before crashing it on the beach. Xavier’s mutants fight Shaw’s while Erik goes inside the crashed sub to find Shaw. There the two fight, with Shaw getting the upper hand. Erik manages to remove Shaw’s helmet, which prevented Xavier getting inside his head. Erik however puts it on his own head preventing Xavier from stopping him. He takes out the coin from the day his mother was killed by Shaw, and sends it straight through Shaw’s head, killing him instantly.
The USSR and USA decide to join forces in ending a potential mutant threat there and then, attacking the mutants on the beach. Erik, now in full control of his abilities, stops their weapons from reaching them, before sending them straight back at the attacking ships. Xavier tries to stop Erik and the two fights with Erik still sending the weapons at the ships. Moira tries to shoot Erik, but a stray bullet hits Xavier in the back. The ships are saved from the oncoming arsenal, and Erik along with Shaw’s team and Raven leave, with Xavier now paralyzed. Back at the mansion, Xavier now in a wheelchair talks about setting up an academy there, and shares a kiss with Moira, wiping her memories to protect them. In the CIA Basement, Erik turns up to rescue Emma, now calling himself Magneto.
OK, this may seem weird, but please bear with me as I quote the back of my DVD copy of the film:
“See how it all began in this thrilling first chapter of the X-MEN saga. Before Charles Xavier and Erik Lensher became Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men discovering their powers for the first time. Before they were enemies, they were the closest of friends and gathered an elite team of mutants to form the X-Men in an attempt to prevent World War III.”
In a nutshell, that is what the film is about basically, two guys who discover they have mutant powers, become friends and prevent yet another World War. In more detail however, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, it’s all the above, but entwined and intermixed together there is a lot more going on than just that. The film’s story is beautifully crafted and is one of the best stories in this series to discover. The film sort of takes the audience back to what the first film was about and concentrates the narrative on two specific characters and what happens to and around them. While the story does lead up to the prevention of World War 3, that’s not its main story. Interestingly, it happens at a time when mutant kind is not necessarily a growing political and social issue. It’s more in the discovery process but only really afflicts those who have visible mutant traits, particularly more so towards Raven. What you get instead is that it’s more of a sub plot, and the concentration is more on the growing possibility of nuclear war and one man’s attempts to start one in order to benefit more himself than anyone else. One thing I rather like about the film’s story telling is how it has combined a fictional setting with real world events. The use of the Cuban Missile Crisis really helps to make the story seem real, like it’s all happening in this world and not just some fantasy or comic book setting. It provides suggestions as to what really happened during that time. It’s not in a fictional world but actually feels like Mutants could be living amongst us. Plus it helps to date the stories and give us perspective as to how far back the film’s plot is set. The setting of the final fight also creates something of a powder keg and shows the moment when mutants first came to public light. It really sets up the scene for future films and stories. Aside from both of these however, is a story that contains lots of interesting elements that come out when characters are looked into. The film contains a lot of characters, some with large backstories for such small roles. While there are some mutants who don’t get this allowance like Riptide or sadly Darwin, others, like Havok, and Angel show an interesting level of character. Havok is so quiet in this film, and is shown as being the kind of person who prefers being alone most of the time, showing this through several insults. However there is a redeeming feature to this. When Darwin dies, Alex does have a sense of regret and sadness inside himself. As the film goes on he opens up more, but keeps his regular side, possibly showing a more vulnerable side to himself. Angel (brilliantly played by Zoe Kravitz) similarly presents a similar character. While when I first saw this film, I was angry at the presentation of Angel, as I was more wanting Archangel (in the comics she’s called Tempest), I grew to her character more and she is an enjoyable addition to the cast. Angel is an interesting character as she so quickly becomes a villain. Not through her wanting to be one, but more through not wanting to hide as a mutant forever, and be accepted for whom she truly is (plus some possible charming from Shaw).
Other notable cast members on something of a shortlist include Banshee. An interesting part and it wasn’t until I saw this film that I had a proper understanding of what his powers were and what he could do. His costume and look appear to be a lot like they are in the comics. He doesn’t necessarily feel persecuted for who he is and is more open from the start. Xavier’s work with him really helps to grow his confidence too. Azazel I feel is trying to have a big role but I don’t think he works other than for being a hired gun. It sort of feels like an attempt to include a character like Nightcrawler, but have them as a villain. He has a few short scenes of speaking parts which help him out and he is an important part of Shaw’s team, but I don’t feel all that strongly for him. Darwin I do feel rather sorry for as he gets killed off rather quickly, which is a shame because he seemed like genuinely a nice character. Emma Frost however is fantastic. Another brilliantly played part that is both cold as her name plus a lot of fun to follow. She is intelligent and sinister as well as possibly a bit deceptive. She has a lot of loyalty towards Shaw despite having some misgivings as the way he treats her. She wears some fantastic clothing that really do help to represent her status in the film as not a hired gun but an intelligent role, plus match an element of her clothing in the comics and cartoons (minus the cape).
First Class makes great use of big stars for minor roles and includes a stellar cast from people who play small parts, but make a big impact due to them being such famous faces. People of note being Ray Wise, Glen Morshower, Matt Craven, Rade Šerbedžija, Michael Ironside and Oliver Platt. Along with these you of course get Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw (this is not a small role). I really do like the inclusion of the Hellfire Club in this film. It’s a section of my X-Men: The Ultimate Guide I have read on many occasions, but while I have known about Emma Frost for a while, it was only in recent times coming up to the release of this film that I really began to discover who Sebastian Shaw was. It was through reading Essential X-Men a year or two beforehand that I was first properly introduced, followed by an inclusion of the character in Wolverine and The X-Men on TV. In First Class, Shaw is just as sinister and uses his wealth and power to create his grand schemes plus the manipulation of those around him. His early introduction allows the character of Erik to be brought into the story, plus the film’s first goal for a character and plot. His powers make him practically invulnerable to attack and as such require both the abilities of Xavier and Magneto to defeat him. Much like the Hellfire Club, Shaw is a brilliant character to have as a villain in this and his team of mutants works well to his character. His final death puts the film in a position ready for its next important twist plus brings out Magneto for who he is. I think Rose Byrne is somewhat underused in this film as she slowly builds to the want of a relationship with Charles, but while the Mutants train, she doesn’t appear to be there. Unlike the people at the CIA who see Mutants as something else, Moira sees more in them. She is confident and always looking for an opportunity to prove herself, which she finds hard to do. She is sort of a comparison to what mutants feel, as she is a woman trying to do a job in a still male orientated world. Despite this though, I still feel like she is underused, especially for such an actress as good as Rose Byrne; despite this though she remains an enjoyable cast member throughout the film.
First Class immediately shows Beast, where as he was delayed from being included until Last Stand in the previous trilogy. In this he tries to hide his mutation from others from the start, and is determined to accomplish the goal of being as normal as possible. While to begin with this triggers a bond between him and Raven, this does lead to a rift as the film goes along. He eventually comes to sort of accept who he is, but struggles with it again when Raven leaves. Raven meanwhile is not flaunting her ability as she did in the first 3 films. Either this could be because she is played by a different actress, or it could be because she is struggling with whom she really is. She hates and despises how people like Charles can look normal, while she has to regularly hide. This causes an early rift between her and her foster-brother and just builds and builds. While not necessarily being a major explored relationship in the film, the obnoxiousness and ignorance presented by Xavier shows his real lack of understanding for her and begins to reveal a weak spot in him. It’s not until Magneto talks to Raven that she begins to explore her right to be who she is, and accepts this as the film ends. Xavier meanwhile is one of the key characters explored in this film. From the start he tries to show himself as an understanding person, but shows a weak flaw in that he doesn’t really understand everything, as he thinks he does. Sure, he does help those around him who need it, but his lack of understanding with Raven causes a rift between them and slowly begins to ignore her. It’s like he’s trying to ground her, instead of helping her. Xavier then is not who he will become and is still playing around a little. He tries to stay calm and respectful in the situation. He also shares some real dramatic and emotional moments, and through one of these, which connects to his belief that mutants and humans can live together ends with him losing his legs, (plus the moment when he can feel the coin going through the head of Shaw).
But it’s Magneto who is the film’s best character. Out of all the characters in the film, it’s Magneto who I connect the most with. While he would grow to become the series greatest villain, it’s interesting to see how it all happened. From his mistreatment at the hands of the Nazi’s, the death of his mother and being experimented on; to the acts that would define and make him the villain that he is today. He has many terrific, enjoyable, memorable and fantastic scenes in this film that are bolstered by his own character traits. But it should be remembered that he does not start out as a villain. While I see other comic villains as being evil just for the sake of being evil, Magneto’s rise to villainy status is shown in a more understanding way. While he will commit atrocious acts against others, it’s hard to say that he is doing it for the wrong reasons, as he has experienced incredible atrocities onto himself. He experienced life in the prison camps, the murder of his mother, and experimentation at the hands of a monster. His life previously can only be imagined, but given what is known about the treatment of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, it’s only fair to see what was in store for Erik growing up. As the film progresses; he begins to commit those atrocities on humanity, but I find myself rooting for him. First on the Germans responsible for what happened to him, to the eventual scene against the ships. Both that and the scene in Argentina are two of the film’s most powerful scenes, and ones I am rooting Magneto to accomplish. Every time I watch the attack on the ships, I want them destroyed, because I sort of feel Erik’s pain, and it feels like Justice needs to be served. Add to this Magneto’s theme as well as Fassbender’s amazing performance and you have a character that stands out so well, that you can’t help but feel a bond with him every time he is on-screen.
X-Men First class is beautifully shot and uses combinations of set pieces with real settings plus some cool camera tricks to make it stand out. I particularly like the camera angles used in the fight between Banshee and Angel. Costumes have always been something of a stand out feature in the X-Men films, and First Class is no different. From things like formal and casual attire, to the super suits. Instead though being like the jet black leather suits of the first trilogy, they look more like the suits in the early comics, which I think is a neat little addition. Add to it the personal traits of costumes too; such as Emma’s Suit Dress, Banshee’s wings, Havok’s disk, and the all famous Magneto Helmet, particularly at the end of the film. From there it’s onto the special effects of which there are many. The films have moved on in special effects from the outstanding Golden Gate Bridge scene in Last Stand and include lots of big special effects to just say “WOW!” at. From the Submarine pickup, to the navy’s arsenal, to the giant Warships themselves. I like how the Iowa class battleships get a part in this film, they look so cool. But it’s not just the big stuff. The mutant powers are on show too. Some are on show for the first time like Banshee’s scream and Havok’s ability, plus old favourites too like Mystique’s transformation. It’s not all down to Computer Effects though as some are more realistic and look superb such as the slicing of the statue at X Division, to the point where Shaw picks up an Iron Bar with his hands.
The film’s soundtrack (Composed by Henry Jackman) is just as incredible as everything else in this film, plus is so memorable too. The film’s main theme (in my opinion) has to be Magneto’s theme. It is featured in the credits which I like, plus, when used in certain scenes shows the growing darkness and aggression that Magneto carries towards those he feels have wronged him. From the Argentinian bar where he grows from a mysterious acquaintance, to the moment he reveals himself and what he thinks about himself. There is just this growing essence of anger inside it which really carries his character for him in those scenes. While in other scenes it’s played around with, it’s still Magneto’s theme and I enjoy listening to it every time I hear it. It’s just so dark and menacing.
The film does have other pieces which stand out too. The film does use pieces of music from well established artists including Love Love by Take That (a really good song) and an instrumental version of Run by Gnarls Barkley used during the recruiting scene. As for the rest of the film’s soundtrack, a lot of pieces use the same piece within them. It’s a sort of calm, joyful and pleasant piece and is used several times as a starter. It begins in the Cerebro scene, the reveal of the mansion at the end of the second act and the lifting of the submarine. It’s a nice piece, just a generally nice piece. It even has a bigger part when the jet appears over the sea above the navies, a grander tone perhaps. Add to this other pieces of note such as the lifting of the submarine which brings more a scene of amazement, or to the Cerebro scene where it quickens and I get tingles down my spine just hearing it increase in speed. There is a definite feel of the period in the film’s soundtrack, and it shows (well hears) and is so pleasant to listen to. A great deal of work has gone into the soundtrack for First Class, and it has not gone to waste.
Alltogether; I love this film. I really do. I don’t like it as much I would say as X2 which I still consider my Favourite of the series, but I would say that First Class is a close second. I really do like this film, its story is tense and gripping, its characters are fun, and new, plus connectable, it’s combination of Special Effects and Soundtrack are amazing and most of all; Magneto is Fantastic. While more films have been released since and still more to come, I still absolutely enjoy this film for everything it has. Sure, it does have some shortcomings in some of its characters, but for every minor issue, there are 10 other things that make up for them. You don’t need to know much about X-Men to enjoy this film as it is a complete beginning for these characters without being a reboot. Overall, X-Men First Class is a fantastic film; I really recommend it.