I wasn’t a huge fan of Bryan Singer’s vision for the first two X-Men films, but even I felt X-Men: Last Stand bastardized everything that came before it. The first two films at least stood for something, even if they didn’t overwhelm me. Brett Ratner’s vision for Last Stand wasn’t interested in expanding the depth of Singer’s universe. Rather, he confused depth with breadth, and was merely concerned about fitting every mutant into the film so fans would blow their load and not immediately see a shitty movie in front of them. The goodwill established by Singer was quickly washed away and a sour taste was left in my mouth. Enter in the underappreciated Matthew Vaughn, a director that understands how to develop colorful characters, as noted in Layer Cake and last year’s Kick-Ass.
Using Singer’s first two films as canon, and hopefully ignoring Ratner’s abomination in the future, Vaughn gives us origin stories that are firmly entrenched in alienation and tragedy. Through the opening frames we come to know Erik Lensherr, a young Jewish boy facing the grim reality of a German concentration camp circa the 1940’s. In the face of despair, Erik discovers he has a strength that has mutated beyond human reasoning. He has the power to propel and repel metal, a notion that would eventually lead to his adult moniker: Magneto. While in the concentration camp, Erik’s life is spared while his love for his parents is exploited by SS member Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), a man who sees Erik’s power as a gateway to the future. Across the Atlantic, in a world more secure, resides Charles Xavier, a child who possesses telepathic powers that supersede the labyrinth like strength of another human’s mind. As we meet Charles, he is unceremoniously introduced to Raven, a blue skinned shape-shifter. It’s at this moment that the aforementioned character’s powers begin to pave the path their lives will take.
Fast forward eighteen years and our young mutants are now full-fledged adults, seperated from the ‘normal’ populous that surrounds them. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is looking for his German captors. More specifically, he’s looking for the elusive Dr. Schmidt who took away his innocence. Only blood can balance the scales. On the other hand, Charles (James McAvoy) is living a charmed life. He’s on the cusp of publishing his thesis and becoming a professor, all of which blinds him from the love that emanates in his direction from Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Feeling meek and unwanted, Raven (or better known as Mystique) hides her blue, scaly skin by transforming into a woman with more human qualities. Her human cloak releases social pressure, but weighs down the uniqueness of her condition. Fueling this dissonance is Charles’ view that her skin is detrimental, especially when taking the plight of civil rights into context. Through the heavy-handed nature of the CIA, these three mutants end up crossing paths, albeit for intrinsically different reasons. Their common goal becomes the destruction of Albert Shaw (the SS Office formerly known as Dr. Schmidt), who envisions the world in a mutated state. To accomplish such a feat, he intends to illicit World War III between the United States and Russia, making the Cold War ignite through a barrage of nuclear weapons.
Mutants come together both in favor of Shaw and Charles, as they wage a war that is masked by human fear and ignorance. It’s a wonderfully layered battle that spills out over a couple of canvases. Vaughn does a terrific job by focusing our attention on various degrees of battles going on. Whether it’s the human conflict budding in Cuba between the United States and Communist regimes or the lack of understanding between humans and their evolved counter parts, Vaughn consistently cuts to the core of each festering problem and uses them to help shape the bigger picture. The most prominent layer and piece of history the film uses is the Cold War. Using the Cold War as a springboard for mutant acceptance is thematically a rich choice mined by the group of writers behind the screenplay. Each mounting decision and each mutant outing threatens to derail mutant and human integration, a notion that Charles strives for, but one that Erik finds fleeting. In comes a philosophical schism that builds a wall between Erik and Charles. It’s this internal conflict that heightens the intensity between the two independent mutants who struggle to convince one another that their respective paths will be far more rewarding. Perfectly acting up this competitive edge between these two leaders are McAvoy and Fassbender. McAvoy is tremendous as he gives Charles an all knowing confidence that allows him to persuade even the most skeptical of beings, but even his performance is no match for the gravitas of Michael Fassbender.
Fassbender has undoubtedly become one of the finest actors around. With his previous body of work in tow, especially the deeply brooding Jane Eyre from earlier this year, Fassbender elevates his character beyond comic book tropes. He’s a walking, breathing tragedy. There’s a level of pain that resides in Fassbender’s eyes that quietly matures into a violent sea of rage. His transformation is subtle but one that becomes all too apparent once the closing credits role. It may sound like the film is a brooding affair, and in a way it is, but there’s some fun to be had. Through the discovery of various mutant powers to a few hilarious and well placed cameos, X-Men: First Class isn’t afraid to lighten its mood. But at its core, it’s a deeply involving film that features a slew of terrific set pieces and an even more impressive stable of driven characters. I will readily admit that the film’s ambition to cover a variety of arcs keeps it from being perfect, but it’s tough to argue against a film this polished and invigorating. Let’s hope Ratner stays away this time.