There are movies that make me wish I had the option of the split rock fist, a non-neutral symbol that says this film is as bad as it is good. That’s the way I feel about Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” and I only grudgingly went with the slightly positive, because I walked out of the theater feeling like I had just watched an okay superhero movie.
Still I am disappointed. I am disappointed that this wasn’t an ensemble cast film. Where is the superhero version of “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Wild Bunch?” “X-Men: First Class” could have been that film. There is a seemingly endless array of characters and opportunities that the world of the X-Men offers, and yet this film’s focus is squarely on three white dudes, and their philosophical differences concerning the mutants’ place in the world.
The main story follows Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he and almost sibling Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), later Mystique, join forces with a CIA task force to face a new threat, the Hellfire Club. Led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who can absorb kinetic energy, the Hellfire Club appears to be meddling in the cold war politics of the 1960s and destabilizing an already tense situation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
On one of their missions, Xavier runs into Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), the soon-to-be Magneto, chasing Shaw. Lehnsherr has been using his own powerful mutant abilities to track down Shaw in order to avenge the atrocities Shaw committed against Lehnsherr’s family during the holocaust.
The historical backdrop of the 1940s for the prologue and then 1960s for the main story makes for a compelling setting, and the conflict between Shaw, Lehnsherr, and Xavier is solid. Bacon, McAvoy, and Fassbender all give decent performances as the lead characters, with Bacon showing an almost ecstatic joy for his comic-book role.
“First Class” also provides a misguided and miserably unsubtle subplot involving Raven and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) — who will later be dubbed Beast — in which the two argue the pros and cons of being a mutant. Raven makes an afterschool-special-worthy speech about how they should be proud of their differences. Both Hoult and Lawrence have shown their acting abilities in other films, and to watch them bent to such trite and overt ends by Vaughn is almost painful.
Most of the other mutant characters are used as flat puzzle pieces, which when applied in the correct way will solve a problem. Almost no development is given to Havoc (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Riptide (Álex González), or Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and only a little more is given to Emma Frost (January Jones). This parade of characters seems to be for comic book fanboys only and does little to actually further the story.
I did enjoy the string of recognizable character actors in small roles. James Remar, Ray Wise, and Michael Ironside all make memorable appearances. There is also a cameo by one of the characters from the previous X-Men films that is sure to delight fans of the series.
Many will probably disagree with my assessment, but all in all I felt that “X-Men:First Class,” though an acceptable summer diversion, was capable of so much more than it delivered.