The X-Men have a tumultuous history. First arriving on the comic book scene as a thinly veiled allegory for the rampant racism of 1960s America, they have remained staples of the industry since then. Besides their clear effort to elevate comic books to something of more cultural importance, they captured the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Since their inception, there have been countless comic incarnations of the iconic heroes, numerous TV series, and several films. However, it was only this past year that saw the X-Men return to their humble origins in the 1960s, with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class.
Besides, detailing the origin stories of Charles Xavier and his eclectic band of mutants, the film attempts to return the comic book heroes to their hallowed place as bearers of cultural meaning that was robbed of them with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Not only are the characters younger and facing the struggles of making sense of their powers, but they are forced to make sense of their place in American history as well. While there are many enjoyable elements of the story, it is the weighted significance of these mutants that is most striking. Although their insertion into the timeline is clumsy and feels somewhat insincere in certain places, the attempt to inadvertently declare the significance of these comic book heroes is appreciated nevertheless.
What’s most remarkable about the film is that it somehow manages to balance the heavier aspects of the storyline with bits and pieces that make it feel like a true comic book movie. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, given Vaughn’s experience with last year’s Kick-Ass. Still, that isn’t to say that comic book fans will necessarily be enamored with Vaughn’s interpretation. There are some issues of chronology that dedicated fans will notice and there are characters that are far from true to their comic book counterparts, such as January Jones’s Emma Frost, but if you can allow yourself to leave the comic books behind, it should prove to be an enjoyable time.
One aspect that X-Men First Class manages to get pitch perfectly, which is at times frustrating but for the most part endearing, is the feel of the film. Since it takes place in the 60s, there is a remarkable amount of attention paid to the time period. As previously mentioned, there are the historical elements, but even more than that. Vaughn takes it beyond the superficiality of costuming and the obviousness of textbook dates. He manages to make a product that feels as if it’s a product of the time period, rather than a retrospective. This is managed in a number of ways, but most obvious is the film’s treatment of women. While it actually pains me in many portions, it’s true to a number of 1960s movies. For instance, Emma Frost is relegated to the position of eye candy and subservience. One could easily claim it’s because that’s the extent of her acting ability, which is certainly true, but it also manages to ring true to the decade. Even Rose Byrne’s character, Moira MacTaggert, who is a competent and fully formed female character, finds herself subjected to these antiquated expectations. This dedication to the accuracy is both impressive, but by today’s standards, seems somewhat obnoxious. Still, it is this type of attention to detail that makes X-Men First Class a truly remarkable representation of the comic book film and the character’s personal evolutions.
However, as detailed as the film is, the progressions of each character is far from perfect. While Erik and Charles are constantly referred to as good friends, the film doesn’t seem to do everything in its power to show it. Fassbender and McAvoy have a certain magnetism that makes their dynamic believable in the scenes that they share, but in the long run, there aren’t enough of these scenes to sell the film’s climactic conclusion.
Nevertheless, this is through no fault of the film itself. Rather, First Class deserves to be more than one movie. Even clocking in at a little over two hours, there’s far too much to squeeze into these movies to explain the origins of the group. However, studio involvement would probably prevent the movie from ever receiving that kind of treatment. Nevertheless, in order to tell the story properly, it almost seems like a necessity, considering their approach to the film’s conclusion, as it is now, feels somewhat rushed.
In the end, X-Men First Class shows a lot of promise as a comic book movie. True, it falters with continuity and several of its characters, but in an effort to draw a new audience in, it had to compromise a little of its comic book origins. Still, it is its return to significance for the X-Men, both cultural and historical, that makes First Class so disarmingly charming. While it is far from a perfect movie, X-Men First Class seems perfectly content as a blend of pop culture and purpose.