I didn’t really know what to expect from this prequel to the X-Men movies. I had heard good things, and the director Matthew Vaughn did a great job with Kick-Ass (one of my favourite movies of last year). However, I didn’t want them to rehash old stories (though we hadn’t really seen the origins of the X-Men on screen yet). In this version (comic fanboys can debate how this compares to canon), telepath and human-loving do-gooder Charles Xavier and megalomaniacal master of magnetism, Erik Lehnsherr are still figuring things out. Their first encounter is an intense one: Xavier (played by James McAvoy) is working with the CIA to stop another megalomaniac, Sebastian Shaw (played oddly by Kevin Bacon), and so is Lehnsherr (played by Michael Fassbender) who uses his magnetic powers to try to hold back Shaw’s submarine. Xavier uses his psychic abilities to get Lehnsherr to give up before he drowns trying to stop Shaw, the Nazi officer who experimented on him and murdered his family. It’s amazing what friendships can form under those conditions. As both men ally themselves with the CIA, they meet other mutants like themselves, and begin to recruit more (using a prototype of the Cerebro brain-amplifying computer). With their rookie team, they attempt to stop Shaw from causing WWIII (during the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis).
I haven’t read the “X-Men: First Class” comic book series, so I don’t know how true this is to the original story, but they introduce a number of characters familiar to X-Men fans, including Emma Frost (the telepath who can also turn her skin diamond-hard), Mystique (the blue-skinned shapeshifter from the previous X-Men movies), Beast/Hank McCoy (the super-genius who has trouble with oversized feet to go with his animal-like physicality), and a bunch of other characters from various X-Men eras. For movie fans there are even a few inside-jokes that you’ll get even if you didn’t read a single comic book, including some fun actor cameos.
One of the struggles of this movie was whether or not to be truly “superhero” with the costumes, over-the-top characters, and flashy effects, or instead focus on the story of realistic characters (albeit supernatural ones). Despite being a multi-layered story, this movie still had a hard time resolving between the two. So there are parts that are too comic-book-like to fit seamlessly with the less exaggerated parts of the movie (and tell me why Xavier needs to put his fingers to his temple to use his abilities even while the plane he’s flying in is unstable). Nevertheless, most of that stuff came in the latter part of the movie. For the first half it was cool to watch these people use their abilities in more subtle ways as government (or anti-government) operatives (makes me excited for the upcoming television series Alphas).
As a prequel, this movie also tries to cover many origin stories, including who ends up with the good guys and doesn’t, how Hank McCoy ends up as the Beast, and how Xavier ends up in a wheelchair. It’s a nice little dip into a different portion of X-Men mythology. After the disaster that was X-Men 3, I’m glad the producers found a way to tell more of their stories. The X-Men are some of my favourite characters, so any more of them I can watch on screen is a good thing. (4 out of 5)