X-Men: First Class (2011) Review

Ever since Hollywood special effects have caught up with the visual demands of comic books, the superhero film has been a reliable revenue generator for studios. Comic book characters already have well-crafted, satisfying stories and an audience that wants to experience them on the big screen. While comic book films aren’t always executed well, the X-Men brand seems to be widely well-received by fans of the source material as well as newcomers. X-Men: First Class maintains much of the appeal of the previous films, adding much more that audiences will enjoy, while also keeping just a few bits that may annoy.

X-Men: First Class is less of a character origin story than it is an origin story for the mutant conflict. Taking place largely during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) teams up with Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from starting World War III. Shaw wants to accelerate mutant evolution by spreading radiation around the world via a nuclear war. In order to save humanity, the CIA teams up with Xavier and Lehnsherr, allowing them to recruit a team of young mutants, including fan favorites Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). Unfortunately, the team is young and inexperienced and taking on Shaw and his mutant cohorts will challenge more than the fledgling X-Men group’s resolve, but also their morality.

Irrespective of how well the film adheres to X-Men lore, audiences should leave the theater satisfied. First Class has all the action and visual effects that viewers will expect from a comic book film. Moreover, most of the action is handled wisely and there are plenty of scenes that will elicit nods and smiles at how clever some of the characters use their powers. One mutant who can teleport instantaneously grabs victims, teleports into the sky and then drops his prey to their deaths. Some powers just aren’t handled with the same flair, however, like the mutant who flies by screaming and keeping himself aloft on sound waves. During the climactic battle, audiences will have to endure watching him flit about the screen for uncomfortably too long while hoping the movie will get back to more interesting mutants doing more interesting things.

Since superhero backstories are typically full of tragedy and strife, it’s a shame that there isn’t more drama in First Class. Audiences get to watch the origin of Magneto – the film even recycles some footage from the first X-Men – but only get a small taste of what he had to endure to become the angry villain he is. Chalk this shortcoming up to one of the problems of team superhero movies: more characters means less character development. On the other hand, a few characters do get fleshed out and it’s fun to watch a young Xavier when he drank surprising amounts of beer, picked up on chicks and still walked.

The film is appropriately grandiose, offering an alternate version to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but some of the confrontations could have been bigger. For instance, the showdown between Lehnsherr and Shaw seems very small for a fight between a man that can control metal and another man who just absorbed the power from a nuclear reactor. Nevertheless, audiences will rightfully marvel when a submarine is yanked out of the water or when a salvo of missiles is stopped in midair.

Fans of the previous X-Men films will appreciate the visual style of First Class. While the filmmakers did a solid job of bringing the characters and the world to life, the film doesn’t quite reach the necessary grittiness to feel real. The movie never shakes its “movie feel” and only does the bare minimum to convey its 60’s timeframe. This isn’t necessarily a criticism since the film seamlessly fits in with the other X-Men films, but audiences should be aware that new ground isn’t being broken here.

Overall, X-Men: First Class is a solid, fun time and all audiences should enjoy it. The strong violence is kept mostly off screen and there’s only one major swear word, so parents can bring their kids without being too nervous. The actors all take their roles seriously – even when their powers aren’t that cool – and the leads carry the film effortlessly. Make X-Men: First Class the next film you see; it’ll be some of the best money and time you spend in the theater this summer.