X-Men always works best as an allegory. Originally the mutants were meant to be analogous to minority populations in America; now, they would probably be more akin to the homosexual population: when mutants are "outed" they are often told to "try not being" mutants, groups trying to find "cures" and mutant pride groups that have saccharine slogans that might as well have come from a Lady Gaga song. It's something that the movies kept in mind, but in First Class it was not an important background fact, it was a major theme within the movie.
We see the beginning of how normal people view them--caged animals in the zoo--and considering the young cast, it really becomes a coming-of-age movie. As kids in puberty, these young mutants are rediscovering who they are, and they're afraid of who they are and they're afraid of how others will view them. As ham-fisted as I complained it to be, the theme of mutant pride is needed and effective, and the shame that the mutants feel--specifically Beast and Mystique--is very well captured and acted. It is the collective plight of these young mutants, forced to live a secret life, that is stronger here than in any of the previous X-Men movies. Angel's line about preferring to be looked at as a sex symbol than a freak resonates, as does the themes of war and genocide.
|Please enjoy the many glares of Emma Frost.|
Every character, from the mutants, to the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union, is trying to keep another war from breaking out. Characters, when they reminisce about the war, do so grimly, and for no one is the war more presently minded than for Erik. From his time in a concentration camp (as seen in the first X-Men feature) to his scenes opposite Sebastian Shaw/Klaus Schmidt and his journey for vengeance, it is Erik who sees the fight for mutant rights clearer than even Xavier: if mutants do not defend themselves, they will be enslaved (the camera veered unsubtly to Darwin when this was stated) or wiped out. Erik was finding himself, a Jew and survivor of a genocide, looking at the possibility of another genocide to come. That said, it is his scenes in discussing this issue with Xavier or Shaw where First Class really achieves life.
There is a moment in the film, near the climax, where we could have seen this theme drawn truly home, in which two CIA operatives are looking in at Emma Frost and discussing mutantkind and Shaw's plan. As they realize what it is--the destruction of humankind for the ascension of mutantkind, Frost stands, activates her mutant-skin (she can turn into a chandelier using her mental powers), cuts through the dividing glass and says "I wouldn't call it a war," and she should have paused and said, "It's a holocaust," which would have been the right way to go, especially since in the two and a half hour duration of the film, it seems everyone is trying not to say the word. It would have been powerful. But maybe they were going for subtlety, something I lack from time to time.
|As a man I've come to dread yet strangely enjoy receiving this look.|
At the same time he knows that fulfilling his role as revenger won't bring any real form of peace, and it won't really change anything for the dead; but that was never the point. The point, for Erik, was always about survival, and the fact that these Nazis survived doesn't work for him. Survival also plays into his feelings for humankind and the mutants. Since humankind so readily wanted them dead--hence their bombing of the beach--Erik sees this as a Holocaust survivor, and now he would risk starting another holocaust (against humankind) to stop another from laying at his feet. Either way, Erik was always meant to be at war.
The other major relationships belong to Erik, Xavier and Raven, which unfortunately suffers a little bit. While all their scenes are well written and acted, we never exactly buy into the closeness of their relations, as (with the exception of Xavier and Raven), they both only know Erik briefly before this trinity is broken. The same goes for Xavier and Raven. While they've known each other for almost twenty years, their relationship doesn't seem as close as it should, and their tearful goodbye therefore didn't mean as much as it should. Indeed the biggest flaw in the movie is a resulted in problems like this: the scenes are too quick, too brief. They feel more like vignettes and snapshots that meant to hurry along relationship and circumstance for the needs of the plot. That's not to say that the scenes or the plot are bad, just too brief; the movie itself will probably be much better upon multiple viewings when the viewer can appropriate digest everything that is happening; unfortunately, however, I don't think there will be any more hidden layers of depth. The speed of the plot (despite taking place over the course of twenty years) requires that too many things happen during the run time.
Scene stealers Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon aside, the rest of the cast is decent in their roles. January Jones' Emma Frost is essentially just Betty Draper with mutant powers, Rose Byrne is wasted in a role too small for her talents. McAvoy, whose most strenuous activity in the film consists of a light jog and thoughtfully touching his fingers to his temple no less than forty times in the movie, fares well in his role as Charles Xavier. He not only has a passing resemblance to Sir Patrick Stewart, but he gives Xavier some much needs lightness and mirth. The over serious grandfatherly role in the past was thankfully, in some part, exchanged here for a kinder, funnier, girl-crazy character who still had the poise and intelligence that his older counterpart does. To watch this movie followed by some Xavier heavy comics, we can see and accept Xavier have a wilder youth, and see the older man as being sober and wiser for his experiences. McAvoy begins to bridge the gap between giddy and intelligent youth to sober and wise excellently throughout the picture.
But, as I said, it is Fassbender and Bacon that steal the movie. Affable Kevin Bacon's turn as the evil Shaw is dealt with class, and Bacon is equal parts insane and cosmopolitan playing both Schmidt and Shaw differently in many respects. It is a shame that Schmidt was used so briefly, as that role was much scarier; however, the charm that Bacon is known for is perfectly translated into the likeable Shaw; he's calm and cool--a hepcat with an attractive entourage and more money than God--and we wouldn't mind hanging out with a guy like him, outside of his inconsiderate genocidal tendencies. In turn, Fassbender's Erik plays the role of charmer with a chip on his shoulder to perfection. He's intense but likeable, and although we know what decisions he'll make, it's still powerful to watch. Magneto here is more likeable than he's been in the fifty year history of his character. Erik's turn towards fascism is obvious and I was surprised at how surprised everyone seemed by it, and while his turn from victim to perpetrator (killing Shaw quickly and then even quicker replacing him) comes on a little fast, it is dealt with the utmost seriousness. His goodbye to Xavier isn't exactly helped by the economic nature of the screenplay as we haven't had the time to appreciate the depth of their friendship, but it is still ripe with wrong writing and meaning, as Erik realizes that while he does indeed now have his vengeance and found his purpose, it comes at the price of his most important relationship.
If a sequel is made, I hope that Xavier is forced into an important role besides being one of the few cripples in comics. He should have to deal with the guilt that it was his guidance that gave Erik focus and gave him better control and increased power; the Beast/Raven relationship should be furthered developed and complicated, as should the trinity of Erik/Xavier/Raven without Erik being the primary bad guy. We've all had enough of that. And give Havok and Moira something to do. Also, I can't help but wonder: Will Magneto take the bullet out of JFK the way he did Xavier?
Too soon? I don't know.
X-Men First Class may not have the distinction of being the best comic book adaptation of all time, but you'll be hard-pressed to find many more better than it.
Next: Green Lantern: Secret Origin.