There has been much talk about how sequels aren’t supposed to be better than the films that preceded them. Does the same thing apply to prequels? If so, then X-Men: First Class has set a new standard. Apart from being the best of all previous X-Men films, it belongs on the same shelf as Superman, Batman, and Iron Man as one of the greatest superhero films ever made; it’s superbly cast, the characters are very well developed, it tells an engaging story, the action sequences are exciting, the special effects are spectacular, and it actually bothers to send a message that’s both understandable and relevant. And my God, it has been released in good old-fashioned 2D. No paying extra, no uncomfortable 3D glasses, no dim projection – why, you can just sit back and enjoy the show!
The film traces the origins of several beloved X-Men characters, most notably Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, who would eventually go on to become Professor X and Magneto. We, of course, know them as enemies, but they were friends when they first met. Their backgrounds could not have been any different; British-born Xavier was raised in a sprawling Westchester, New York mansion with his mother and servants, whereas Lehnsherr was a German Jew whose mother was murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland. They do have one thing in common: They were born with mutated genes, giving them abilities regular people do not have. For Xavier, it’s telepathy. For Lehnsherr, it’s the ability to attract and manipulate metal objects.
The bulk of the story takes place in 1962 at the dawn of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A key figure in creating tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a ruthless, deliciously evil mutant whose ability to absorb kinetic energy has slowed his aging. Like all great comic book villains, he’s hell bent on world domination. And he isn’t alone. At his side are: Emma Frost/White Queen (January Jones), a telepath whose skin can turn into diamonds; Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a demonic-looking mutant with the gift of teleportation; and Jonas Quested/Riptide (Álex González), who can create powerful cyclones with his hands.
A CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) seeks out Xavier (James McAvoy), since his expertise in mutation may convince the CIA that Shaw is a threat. Xavier – along with his shape-shifting foster sister, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) – joins forces with a CIA scientist known only as the Man in Black (Oliver Platt). He has built a cerebral machine that can track mutants, which will be invaluable during the recruitment phase. Xavier eventually meets Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who has thus far relied only on his anger to fuel his magnetic abilities. For him, this is not about preventing World War III; he just wants revenge against Shaw, the man who murdered his mother back in 1944.
The film closely examines several relationships, and although we already know how most of them will end up, that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. Xavier and Lehnsherr, for example, are united in their understanding of how it feels to be different, and they recognize that, once the public is made aware of the existence of mutants, they will be discriminated against. They are, however, divided by ideology – which, rather cleverly, mirrors the differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. For Lehnsherr, the seeds of hatred have already been sown; mutants are the superior beings, and humanity is irredeemably evil. Xavier is more hopeful; although mutants deserve the same rights and privileges as humans, they should not have to resort to violence in order to attain them.
Another interesting character is a young scientist named Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who has hidden his prehensile feet from the Man in Black. When asked about his secrecy, McCoy replies with one of the film’s best lines: “You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell.” Initially, he sees Raven as a kindred spirit, and they both lament about their persistent feelings of shame and isolation. But the more McCoy pursues a cure for their “abnormalities,” the less Raven believes she or any other mutant should have to hide their true selves. Lehrsherr guides her along: “You want society to accept you,” he says, “but you can’t even accept yourself.” Ultimately, she adopts a new mindset: Be proud to be a mutant.
The director is Matthew Vaughn, whose previous effort was Kick-Ass. Amazing, how seamlessly he transitioned from one of the worst superhero films ever made to one of the best. X-Men: First Class is indeed first class – a movie that delivers not only as a fun-filled action spectacle but also as a compelling examination of issues that are … well, human. We have been through war. We have struggled for civil rights. We have fought for justice. We have sought retribution. We have all felt self-conscious about the way we look. Isn’t it wonderful, how you can watch a movie about mutants and, upon leaving the theater, feel as if you have more in common with them than with the human characters?