We’ve arrived at the final film (so far) in the X-Men series, X-Men: First Class. This was apparently first contemplated as another X-Men Origins movie, like that Wolverine travesty, this time focusing on Magneto. But it was expanded to include a young Charles Xavier, as well as the origin of the X-Men concept.
So this is in essence a prequel to the first X-Men feature. However, director Matthew Vaughn–who had previously been set to direct X-Men: The Last Stand, but dropped out because of the too-tight schedule–didn’t want to be straitjacketed by existing continuity, so while the film sets up many elements that appeared in the earlier films, it is also incompatible with their continuity in some important ways.
The film establishes itself as of a piece with the other films in its very first scene, which is a replay of the opening scene from the first X-Men movie (though not quite a shot-for-shot remake)–Jewish kid separated from family at concentration camp, bends a metal gate in an attempt to get back to his mother, knocked out by a rifle buttstroke to the head.
We then jump across the pond to a mansion in Westchester, New York, where a young Charlie Xavier confronts something in the kitchen posing as his mother. And that something is…
A young blue girl named Raven. Charles is excited to have someone else with abilities around, so he convinces Raven that she no longer has to steal. She can stay with Charles as long as she wants.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, we see young Erik Lensherr standing before Kevin Bacon as a bespectacled researcher. Though he speaks German and orders the Nazis around, he claims not to be one of them. He isn’t interested in Aryan purity, but the mutant genetics that lead to power like Erik’s.
He offers Erik chocolate if he can move a coin, but gets no results after a few moments of ridiculous pantomiming. So he has Erik’s mother brought in and threatens to shoot her if the coin does not move. When the coin remains unbudged, Erik’s mother is killed. In his grief and anger, Erik then begins to destroy everything made of metal in a frenzy of rage.
And here, even before the opening credits, we see the movie beginning to go off the tracks. That bit with kid Xavier and kid Mystique signals that this movie won’t be dovetailing perfectly with the other films, given that Mystique has never evidenced the slightest relationship with Xavier before, let alone being his oldest childhood friend.
And the bit with the young Magneto is all too reminiscent of the opening silliness of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which a kid has to act out a killer rage. Erik screams for a solid 45 seconds, and I don’t believe it for one of them. Especially when he destroys a bell, a filing cabinet, a room full of metal lab tables and surgical equipment, and the skulls of two helmeted Nazis, but somehow fails to lash out at the guy who just shot his mother. There are plot-related reasons for his failing to do so, but it’s a glaring omission that starts things out on the wrong foot.
Then titles, and the stupid young Erik is almost instantly forgotten as we see Michael Fassbender as Erik grown up, sitting in a Geneva hotel room, levitating the coin given to him by Kevin Bacon’s character as he contemplates a map showing how he has tracked the man down across the world. It’s now 1962, and between Fassbender’s intensity and the pulsing revenge music composed by Henry Jackman, it looks like the movie is going to leave the silliness behind.
But we can’t really trust that, can we, given that someone decided to leave that previous scene in untouched?
Time to check in on our other main players, Charles and Raven. Charles is now attending Oxford University and working on his thesis on genetic mutation, although he seems mainly concerned with using his genetic knowledge and telepathic powers to hit on hot chicks in the pub, even managing to work the word “groovy” into his genetics riff.
James McAvoy is smarmy, yet charming, as the adult Xavier (two words you would never think to associate with Patrick Stewart’s version of the character), and Jennifer Lawrence as Raven obviously has a crush on him.
It’s never explained how Raven has stayed with him all these years. His parents never noticed there was another kid living in the house? Like Erik’s failure to kill the still-unnamed Kevin Bacon character, it’s vital to the plot, but lacking a good explanation, they apparently just decided to make it a fait accompli. It doesn’t matter how it happened, just that it happened. But it’s tickling that part of my brain that says, “I would feel happier and trust this movie more if it made some damn sense.”
Back in Switzerland, Erik tortures a Swiss banker to find someone named Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon, apparently).
The scene plays really well. There are some cool camera compositions using reflections in a bar of gold, Fassbender is mesmerizing, and the guy playing the banker gives a really grotesque performance as a guy having a metal filling ripped magnetically from his mouth. It’s like Vaughn half-assed the parts of the story that bored him, and is trying to compensate by amping up the cool parts. Can he sustain that for a whole movie? We’ll see.
Welcome to Las Vegas! A couple of C.I.A. agents are scoping out a casino where something called the Hellfire Club (an organization of mutants that played a central role in the “Dark Phoenix” saga in the comics) is attracting a lot of very high rollers, including a colonel in the Air Force. When a bevy of women in just their underwear arrive, the female agent (played by Rose Byrne) joins them to try to get a closer look at things inside. Brave, walking into the lion’s den virtually naked, and also fan service.
The colonel is met by a scantily-clad woman named Emma Frost (January Jones from Mad Men) who works for someone named Sebastian Shaw. She takes the colonel to a booth with a velvet curtain. When the agent tries to follow, the booth is empty. But this scene manages a really nice faux-60’s flavor: the saturated colors, the men in tuxes, Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon singing “Palisades Park, and the spinning booth gag that appeared in at least one Bond movie (Live and Let Die, I think, but also maybe the 60’s spoof Casino Royale).
The girl peers through a crack into another secret room, where Colonel Hendry is threatened by Sebastian Shaw, who turns out to be Klaus Schmidt, only looking younger and groovier, minus spectacles and mustache and now wearing a velvet jacket. Shaw wants U.S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey and intimidates Hendry with a trio of mutants, including Frost (a different White Queen than the one from Wolverine, but still able to turn to diamond, as well as being a telepath), Azazel (a red-skinned teleporter), and a dude who can conjure whirlwinds.
The agent makes her way out and calls her boss, only to be told that Hendry is 3000 miles away, recommending that U.S. nuclear missiles be stationed in Turkey.
Oh, and he calls her “MacTaggart,” as in Moira MacTaggart, last seen in comics and X-Men: The Last Stand as a Scottish genetics researcher and former flame of Xavier’s. Once again, the X-series is doing this weird cherry-picking mix-and-match, taking disparate characters and mashing them together, using an established character’s name without any of that character’s identifying details, in ways that make it not only incompatible with the comics, but also with the other films in the series. I don’t mind reimagining, but the haphazard nature of it grates on me. Why couldn’t they just make a new character rather than recycling Moira’s name?
And so, while Fassbender is in Argentina, killing more Nazis in his quest for Klaus Schmidt…
Moira is seeking an expert in genetic mutation and finds Charles, celebrating his graduation by sucking down a yard of beer and flirting drunkenly with her. But he sobers quickly when he reads her mind and sees the images of Azazel and the White Queen.
In Miami, Colonel Hendry tries to bluff his way off of Shaw’s yacht with a grenade. But Shaw absorbs the explosion and uses the absorbed energy to kill Hendry.
Which brings up a question which is never answered: was Shaw a mutant all along, or did he somehow mutate himself after studying Erik (and perhaps other mutants)? I don’t think the filmmakers had a good answer to that question, and obviously now, the reason that Erik never attacked Shaw/Schmidt in that early scene becomes apparent: if he was a mutant, it would spoil this big reveal, and if he wasn’t, he would die and end the story. Either way, plot ruined.
At CIA HQ in Langley, Xavier and Moira meet with some muckety-mucks including Agent Stryker (the guy in the middle), who will go on to become Colonel Stryker, villain of both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X2. Charles reveals his telepathy, but no one believes him until Raven reveals her shapeshifting ability.
And why is Raven even in this meeting? Because she has to be to further the plot. I’m starting to get seriously tired of this movie’s continued failures to address significant plot holes, as if ignoring them makes them not be there. Come on, movie, you’re not even trying!
So Charles and Raven are entrusted to the dude in black back there, Oliver Platt. His character is never named, but I’m thinking he must be Fred Duncan from X-Men: Children of the Atom. Moira convinces Charles that they must go after Shaw immediately, so Charles compels Duncan to go along.
And of course, because this is a movie, they get there at the same time as Erik, who trashes Shaw’s yacht with the anchor chain in a pretty spectacular moment.
But Shaw and his compatriots escape on a submarine launched from the bottom of the yacht, and Erik is not strong enough to stop it. Instead, he is dragged helplessly behind until Charles dives into the water, grabs him, and telepathically convinces him to let go. They will have to regroup and try again.
And that’s where we’ll leave it until next week. So far, I’m liking the movie’s style even though it lacks substance, and I really like MacAvoy and Fassbender in the lead roles.
See you next week.