By Edward Gambichler
“My friend….killing will not bring you peace” – Charles Xavier ( Professor X )
“…Peace was never an option….- Erik Lensherr ( Magneto )
Comic books ( like History ) are usually divided into “Ages”: There is the “Golden Age” and the “Silver Age”. For DC Comics, the Golden Age ( spanning the late 1930’s to early 1950’s ) saw the introduction of icons such as Superman, Batman, the original Flash, the original Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman whereas for Timely Comics ( later known as Marvel Comics ) it was Namor the Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch, and Captain America. It was in the Silver Age ( spanning the early 1950’s to the early 1970’s ) where Marvel Comics introduced its icons to the medium. These characters were Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Daredevil and the Avengers. And, finally ( in what would grow to become one of Marvel’s most popular titles )…….the X-Men. And with that popularity came the inevitable screen adaptation in the form of a 2000 film directed by Bryan Singer ( The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, as well as DC’s Superman Returns ). It told the story of a school comprised of “mutants” , individuals born with an extra chromosome that manifests itself as superhuman abilities. This institution for “gifted” children was founded by a man named Professor Charles Xavier, codename Professor X ( played by Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart ). Xavier ( a mutant himself whose “X-factor” gene gives him enormous powers of telepathy ) brings together these students to teach them how to cope with their special gifts and to try to mold them into becoming productive members of a society that has grown to fear them as the next stage of evolution. The school is also home to the school’s former students now senior faculty members, a highly trained combat unit known as the “X-Men”. Their function is to deal with renegade mutants ( as well as fear-driven homo sapiens ) who are bent on being the dominant species on the planet. The most dangerous of these mutant terrorists is a former Holocaust survivor named Erik Lensherr, codename Magneto ( played in the first movie by Sir Ian McKellan ). Xavier’s former best friend, Magneto is a being who holds absolute magnetic power over anything metal. In order to further his vision of a “homo superior” only utopia, he recruits mutants for his group the “Brotherhood”. The film spawned two other sequels as well as a standalone movie, a prequel, centering around the origin of the X-Men’s most popular member, Wolverine ( played by Australian actor Hugh Jackman, making his American debut in the first X-Men film ).
And now, 11 years later , 20 Century Fox continues the series by going the prequel route again with X-Men: First Class. Directed by Matthew Vaughn ( Layer Cake, Kick Ass ), the film focuses on the events that led to the formation of Xavier’s school, the first meeting and close friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, and finally, the fallout between them that set in motion their violent “war of ideologies” depicted in the previous trilogy. In an inspired move, the film begins with a shot for shot remake of the first scene in the first film ( set in a WWII German concentration camp ). A young Erik Lensherr is taken into custody by Nazi prison guards, after lashing out and using his magnetic powers against the soldiers for separating him from his parents. He is brought before the camp’s chief scientist, Dr. Schmidt, who orders him to demonstrate his power. When young Lensherr is unable to repeat his previous display, Schmidt executes the boy’s mother right in front of him. This tragic moment serves as a catalyst and Lensherr unleashes a devastating wave of magnetic energy ( causing everything metal in the doctor’s office to implode ). Meanwhile, a young Charles Xavier is awakened to a noise coming from downstairs in the kitchen of his family mansion in New York. He sees before him his own mother, but realizes it is really not her ( due to his telepathic powers ). The impostor turns out to be a young blue skinned girl named Raven Darkholme ( codename Mystique, Magneto’s right hand woman in the first film ), whose mutant ability is to mimic the appearance of other people. Charles, overjoyed at realizing that he is not the only one in the world that is “special”, invites the homeless girl to live with him in the mansion.
The story picks up more than a decade later in Las Vegas, where C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert ( played by actress Rose Byrne ) has infiltrated the exclusive “Hellfire Club”. She and the Agency are surveilling a U.S. Army Colonel who is about to do a deal to with the club’s leader Sebastian Shaw ( who is secretly a mutant with the power to absorb kinetic energy and be strengthened by it ), to install U.S. missiles in Turkey. Shaw’s intention is to make the “Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia even hotter and to compel Russia to invade Cuba, setting the stage for a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers ( one that Shaw believes only mutants will survive ). MacTaggert is stunned when she witnesses one of Shaw’s associates Azazel “teleport” the Colonel out of the room ( and back to Washington ). Not knowing anything about mutants, MacTaggert travels to Oxford, England to recruit Charles Xavier ( who is living with Raven and has just completed his doctorate on Genetics ). Surprised to find out that both he and Raven are mutants, the C.I.A. enlists his help in dealing with Sebastian Shaw. While attempting to raid Shaw’s private yacht with a covert C.I.A. strike team, Xavier ‘s telepathic attack is blocked by Emma Frost, another of Shaw’s associates, who is a telepath herself. They are also hindered by another one of Shaw’s team, Riptide ( whose mutant powers to create destructive whirlwinds almost capsizes the C.I.A. battleship ). This diversion allows Shaw and the rest to escape in a secret submarine. Unbeknownst to Xavier and the C.I.A., Erik Lensherr arrives to try and take out Shaw himself. Lensherr has devoted most of his life hunting down and killing former Nazis to avenge the death of his family. Shaw, as it turns out, was actually Dr. Schmidt ( the former chief of the concentration camp and murderer of Lensherr’s mother ) and he’s at the top of Lensherr’s death list. Before Lensherr can drown trying to hold on to the submarine with his magnetic power, Xavier persuades him to let go. Realizing that he and the C.I.A. are outgunned by the Hellfire Club, Xavier persuades the top brass at the Pentagon to allow him to recruit and train other mutants at his mansion for his own strike team against the evil mutants ( before Shaw’s plans lead to nuclear Armageddon…..and the extinction of homo sapiens is an absolute certainty ).
To be honest, when I heard they were making this film I was not that excited. I felt with the first X-Men trilogy, that they had mined enough material to satisfy the title’s fans and that they should concentrate on other Marvel properties. However, sometimes what is needed is not a step forward, but a step back. And with that, the film-makers have given us an origin story that not only makes the material fresh but it is, dare I say, one of the “truest” Marvel adaptations I have seen. Many of Marvel’s properties have been given a modern update and set in today’s 21st Century ( with the exception being the upcoming “Captain America: First Avenger” in July ). However, the Marvel lineup was “born” in the Silver Age or 1960’s. With the production design, costuming, and historical setting of the Cuban Missile Crisis reflecting the time period, this is the first Marvel adaptation to give us the “feel” of the Marvel Age. The epic scope of the film and the emphasis on global events bring to mind the James Bond films from the Connery era. I couldn’t help but think of the artist Jim Steranko’s work on Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. , when looking at some of the film’s sets and character’s Mod style of dress. And finally, the wardrobe department actually found a way to give the X-Men’s uniforms the “yellow” the original team in the comics wore ( a color that was derided in Singer’s adaptation, which emphasized black leather ).
What really makes this film come alive though, ultimately, is the performances by the principal actors. James MacAvoy ( Atonement, Wanted ) gives a compassionate performance that evokes the character Patrick Stewart had established before. However, MacAvoy makes it his own by instilling the character with a youthful charm and exuberance. Fans of the comic wouldn’t confuse a drunken college student Xavier ( using his power to pick up women in bars ), with the serious high-minded academic Stewart gave us. On the other end of the spectrum, actor Michael Fassbender ( Hunger, Inglourious Basterds ) gives us a tortured portrait of the man whose pain and hatred of homo sapiens will one day put him in direct conflict with the only friend he’s ever had in his life. However, the standout in this film is newcomer Jennifer Lawrence ( last year’s Best Actress Academy Award nominee for Winter Bone and star of the upcoming Hunger Games ) as the future Mystique. Another inspired move by the film-makers is the retconning of a sibling relationship between her and Xavier ( one that she wishes were romantic ) and which makes her defection to Magneto’s camp that more tragic. Lawrence conveys the nuanced emotions needed to portray the lightning rod that ignites the ideological war between the two men.
Not every scene in the movie is played to dramatic effect. Look for a hilarious cameo during the scenes where Xavier and Lensherr recruit mutants for their combat unit. Also, another cameo that gives a sly wink to Raven’s future. And, if die hard comic fans are watching, look for a scene near the end of the movie that gives a slight nod to the ending of Superman II (1980).
For every story that centers on good versus evil, there has to be a great hero….and an equally great villain. And Kevin Bacon ( Mystic River, A Few Good Men, Apollo 13 ), in the role of Sebastian Shaw, does not disappoint. In one chilling scene, the Hellfire Club raids the C.I.A. compound, housing Xavier’s students and go about systematically killing off several of their C.I.A. handlers one by one. Shaw offers his own brand of violently persuasive “recruitment” and this scene is one, if not, THE best in the movie. The full threat of the Hellfire Club and the power that they are up against, hit the young mutants like a spike through the heart. Bacon’s performance makes that threat even more palpable and any illusions held by this “first class” that they are a match for the Hellfire Club quickly evaporate. The look of abject fear on the faces of the actors playing the young, untested mutants is classic. In my opinion, this is the best film of the X-Men franchise and I hope it will not be the last with this cast and production team.