With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.
We continue with Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class…
As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.
To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel and prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.
The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.
In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.
A key reason First Class works is because it reconnects with the very heart of the X-Men story – the ideological struggle between X and Magneto.
When we first met them as old men in X-Men, played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, they were historic adversaries on opposite sides of the brewing conflict at the turn of the millennium – whether mutant kind could live in harmony with humanity or be suppressed by it. You felt the weight of history and personal antagonism between these two characters, and indeed hints of comradeship between two men who in other circumstances might be fast friends. Vaughn and principal writer Jane Goldman—with whom he had previously worked on the successful adaptation of graphic novels Stardust and Mark Millar’s superhero inversion Kick-Ass—seemed to understand that First Class, and the prequel trappings of the X-Men universe, needed to gravitate around the origin stories of Xavier and Magneto, and the foundation of a friendship with turns across the picture into the beginning of their legendary antipathy.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do more than simple Stewart and McKellen impressions and rather inhabit these characters at very different points in their lives. Xavier is a young, swaggering, charming Oxford graduate already very openly championing the emerging mutant cause. “Mutant and proud” he tells his adopted sister Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), aka the future Mystique, believing that humanity and mutants can find common cause. Xavier is imbued with a level of academic rebellion at the beginnings of academic counter-culture within the early 1960’s, his radical theories and ideas sitting alongside the emergence of rock’n’roll or the hippy movement, all set to clash violently and ideologically with the old world order. This is a pre-wheelchair bound Xavier optimistic about the future and while he never quite loses that optimism, it is certainly tempered by the events of First Class.
Conversely, Erik Lensherr undertakes a very different path toward the inhabitation of the Magneto persona. Vaughn chooses to start First Class elliptically with Singer’s 2000 X-Men film, with young Erik inside a Nazi concentration camp during the war seeing his parents dragged off to the gas chambers (even to the point he uses the same Michael Kamen strings for that scene), but adds an extra, unseen wrinkle we didn’t know about. It’s a skilled way to foment Erik’s anger by introducing Kevin Bacon’s mutant villain Sebastian Shaw as a Nazi scientist who kills Erik’s mother, setting the older, early 60’s Erik onto a path of murderous, globe-trotting vengeance. These early scenes of Erik as a lethal Simon Wiesenthal, travelling the world to take out escaped Nazi war criminals, plays like the Sean Connery-era James Bond film Vaughn you suspect has always wanted to make, with Fassbender imbuing Erik with a deadly, suave charm that could almost be the anti-Bond.
It does make one wistful for the Magneto film that never was. The original plan was to expand the X-Men: Origins line beyond Wolverine to develop a Magneto origin movie which McKellen would have bookended as the older version of himself. Here’s the original, released synopsis:
The original X-Men film began with a prologue that showed the character as a child being led to a concentration camp by Nazis and that is the period in which the Magneto film will take place. This setup will allow a future villain to at least flirt with the designation of protagonist since the character will be seen almost exclusively in his formative years. The storyline will heavily involve Professor X, the wheelchair-using X-Men leader. That character was a soldier in the allied force that liberated the concentration camps. The professor meets Magneto after the war and while they bond over the realization that they are alike in their special powers, their differences soon turn them into enemies.
You can see just how much of this ended up incorporated into First Class, and while Fassbender hadn’t been cast in the original, David Goyer-penned Magneto Origins script, an entire film of Erik hunting Nazis with a young Xavier on his tail could have been fascinating. Aside from Wolverine’s critical mauling and the presumed desire to reboot the X-Men proper as a going concern, you can understand the decision made ultimately to provide more of a direct, broader X-Men origin story as opposed to focusing just on X and Magneto. First Class has plenty more characters and origins built into the narrative but it understands that the core needs to be Erik and Charles’ friendship, their unification of the original X-Men as a concept, and how they part thanks to their ideological differences and chart different paths.
In some sense, First Class takes a cue from the 2009 JJ Abrams-directed Star Trek movie, in how it initially moves between Erik and Charles as children, into adulthood, and drip feeds the greater universe and mutant characters in around them. Star Trek centres the reboot of that universe in Kirk and Spock, their very different journeys to Starfleet and eventually the U.S.S. Enterprise, while rooting Kirk’s backstory cleverly in the main threat of the film. First Class does the same thing with Erik, given how his driving motivation is to find and kill Shaw, who ends up not just the primary antagonist of the entire film, but dually both Erik’s personal antagonist and mentor figure all rolled into one. Magneto’s helm comes from Shaw, as do his ideas. “I’d like you to know that I agree with every word you said. We are the future. But, unfortunately, you killed my mother.” he tells the man just before killing him.
First Class very neatly constructs Xavier as a mutant built on hope and Magneto as a mutant built on rage, and indeed fear. It analogises the US and Soviet military forces who Shaw plays off against one another to trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis, in Erik’s mind, with the Nazi forces who murdered his family. When he turns a barrage of missiles launched from both sides onto the surviving mutants fighting for and against Shaw, Xavier tries to remind him not all men on those battlecruisers are deciding to destroy them, and many are just following orders. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.” Erik opines as he begins to morph fully into the nascent Magneto persona. Had Xavier not been crippled in that moment, Erik would have murdered thousands of soldiers through his inability to overcome the potent rage he carries with him about the subjugation and slaughter of his Jewish heritage. It becomes central to his hatred of humanity in general and growing, fascist belief mutants are the ‘master race’. Erik becomes across First Class what he hates the most.
While some of the bigger components of First Class don’t quite work, and the narrative at times becomes quite messy in trying to establish and service plenty of aspects at once, the film understands the power of the origin story and how it was coming to dominate comic-book cinema in particular.
By 2011, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was beginning to make its mark on comic-book cinema and the blockbuster in general. It hadn’t quite changed the game yet but the building blocks were in place, and their initial pictures had been successfully delivering origin stories for a lexicon of Marvel heroes, some of whom such as Iron Man or Thor were only truly potent in the public consciousness to comic-book readers. The MCU began to change all of that and audiences grew more and more entranced with the idea of seeing the genesis of these characters and where they came from, except X-Men now needed to do this in reverse. Their destinations were already committed to celluloid, it was how the X-Men came to be formed, how X ended up in the wheelchair, how Erik Lensherr became Magneto or who Mystique was – these were all fertile prequel questions but First Class had to be a prequel, an origin story and effectively a sequel, or at least a continuation of a franchise, all in one. No easy task.
Prequels were nothing new, of course. The Godzilla franchise in the 1960’s and 70’s dabbled in them, as did the Planet of the Apes. Some people do this day still don’t always realise that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is technically a prequel, set as it is before Raiders of the Lost Ark (perhaps because nothing in the plot bar the date lends itself to the rules of a prequel in any way), and three of the most famous (or infamous) prequels were the Star Wars Episodes I-III which dominated popular culture in the years before the true rise of the comic-book movie. First Class had to serve two masters, nevertheless; it needed to both tell the origin stories of the world established in the original X-Men film but equally had to function as an X-Men movie we recognise and understand in its own right, operating to many of the same rules and stylistics, and crucially continuity, of the films that came before.
Vaughn was originally slated to direct The Last Stand and describes how his film would have differed to the finished product:
X3 was a weird process, because the reason I pulled out of it was I genuinely didn’t think I had enough time to make the film. And they’d given me much more time on that one than on this one. And that world was already created. So, what was more satisfying about this one, was because of Stardust and Kick-Ass, I was far more comfortable about bigger budget, special effects, all that shit. But I loved the idea that I could recast every character, set up a new world, and do my version of an X-Men movie. Because, with X3, ultimately, you’re following a trend. And my X3 would have been- you know, I storyboarded the whole bloody film. Did the script. My X3 would have been at least forty minutes longer. I think they didn’t let the emotions of those characters- I remember when I was writing the scenes when Jean Grey turns around to Wolverine and says, “Kill me,” and the deaths at the end, and Professor X’s death. I was writing all that shit and I just felt it didn’t let the emotion and the drama play in that film. It became wall to wall noise and action. How long was it, ninety-eight minutes? I would have let it breathe, and have far more dramatic elements to it. But they probably wouldn’t have let me do that. But Fox were great on this. Fox have got this really bad reputation, but they were true allies on this. They let me get on with it.
First Class absolutely allows itself to breathe. It allows the friendship between Charles and Erik to feel earned and natural, helped by McAvoy and Fassbender’s natural chemistry. It spends enough time developing the key X-Men characters who will help carry the franchise into subsequent films while managing to provide plenty of action-based set pieces that mean something to the development of these people. Take the scene of Mystique and the formative X-Men teenagers mucking about with their powers and christening each other with ‘super-names’ (including Magneto), which ends up turning into an adult rebuke and later a far darker action sequence with death and emotional consequences.
The emerging star that is Jennifer Lawrence manages to create in Raven the centre point of the ideological dichotomy between X and Magneto – the mutant torn between the brother who wants her to be who she is within controlled conditions, and the mentor/older potential lover who encourages her to be who she is now, free and unburdened (it’s telling how Xavier rejects her sexually while Erik quite possibly does sleep with her). It retroactively makes the Mystique from the first three movies (played by Rebecca Romijn, who gets a delightful and clever cameo here) far more of a interesting and layered character, placing her future relationship with and loyalty to Magneto in an entirely different context (it also makes his callous rejection of her in The Last Stand harder to buy). She is the core of the battle between X and Magneto for mutant kind which turns them into a complicated mix of enemies and friends – between hope and rage, control and freedom.
This is also reflected, of course, in the broader geopolitical tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union which Shaw and his Hellfire Club exploit and manipulate in order to foster the self-destruction of humanity. First Class skilfully manages to use this backdrop, neatly weaving elements of real-life alternate history into the mix (given it is ultimately mutants who trigger the crisis that almost triggered WW3 in 1962), as an allegory for the founding conflict between both mutant ideologies – control (Soviets) or freedom (US). In many ways, Shaw—as a former Nazi who reimagines himself as a suave American Bond-villain thanks to Kevin Bacon’s enjoyably sleazy performance—represents the vengeful old order snapping back at the new ideology and paradigm, the lurking Nazi seeking his own ideological vengeance about the powers that destroyed the master race.
In the end though, ultimately, Shaw’s function is to operate as the instigation of Magneto’s origin, as a twisted father figure proxy. “I’m sorry for what happened in the camps. I truly am. But everything I did, I did for you. To unlock your power. To make you embrace it. You’ve come a long way from bending gates. I’m so proud of you. And you’re just starting to scratch the surface. Think of how much further we could go, together. I don’t want to hurt you, Erik. I never did. I want to help you. This is our time. Our age. We are the future of the human race. You and me, son. This world could be ours.” Shaw in the end is a merely functional villain, and without the personal connection to Erik he would have been a sub-standard Bond-villain pastiche (as January Jones’ beguiling but empty femme fatale Emma Frost ends up, sadly), but he serves an important function in the backstory of both Magneto and Xavier – for the latter particularly in how he engages with and utilises the CIA and the US military.
There is a great exchange toward the end of the picture, as Xavier has established the School for Gifted Youngsters in his old family manor house, when he tells Rose Byrne’s Dr. Moira McTaggart before wiping her memory. “We’re still on the government side, Moira. We’re still G-Men. Just without the “G”. “No. You’re your own team now. It’s better. You’re X-Men” “Yes, I like the sound of that.” It’s a little hokey but it establishes the point nicely – the franchise may have morphed into something new but the essential X-Men concept, even in this new historical era and paradigm, remains the same. We have the mansion. We have familiar characters such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till) aka Alex ‘brother of Cyclops’ Summers. We have Cerebro. We even have the old 1960’s-era costumes from the comic strip that earlier X-Men films, with their darker costume aesthetic, lampooned. In an old setting, we have new and to a degree familiar X-Men.
What lets the film down is continuity, because despite being a prequel, not all of First Class lines up with the future these characters are purported to inhabit perfectly. Moira technically appeared in The Last Stand played by Olivia Williams as a woman in her 30’s looking after the new body of Charles Xavier, yet the same character as a young woman exists in 1962. Alex Summers is supposed to be Cyclops’ younger brother in the comic lore yet he would be old enough here to be his father, most likely. There is also no indication in the previous films that Xavier and Mystique have anywhere near the emotional connection or history they do in First Class and through childhood. In some respects, First Class might have benefited from operating as a new start, a fresh beginning – less a prequel and more of a pure, rebooted origin that kickstarted a new, period-set X-Men franchise. In trying to tether to the franchise’s past and its continuity’s future, it lays the ground work for a headache inducing continuity mess only set to worsen in the next film.
Putting this aside, however, First Class is hard to see past as—to this point—the strongest X-Men film outside of X2. It is directed with a finesse, looks often terrific, revels in its period setting, has depth to the characters and layers of satisfying allegory, and it successfully manages to operate as a prequel and franchise relaunch with a joie de vivre many expected the X-Men by this point was incapable of. When it works, it deserves a place up there with comic-book cinema’s finest.
It also allows for a game-changer of a film to come…