After a few disappointing installments, the producers of the X-Men movie franchise decided to reboot the series with a prequel, telling the story of how benevolent telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) met the angry magnetic powerhouse Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and formed the X-Men – a team of superhuman genetic mutants who would go on to become Lehnsherr’s nemesis, after he declared war on the human race and became the villainous Magneto.
Prequels often feel like creatively bankrupt attempts to cash in on backstory that was better left in the background. The early days of Anakin Skywalker were much more interesting when the audience was left to imagine what a “Clone War” might be like. X-Men: First Class is a delightful, exhilarating, and thought-provoking exception. As with the equally creaky Star Trek franchise, a prequel was exactly the right way to go.
If you’re a novice to the world of the X-Men, or even if you don’t like superheroes in general, have no fear. This is a perfectly accessible movie that works as a grand emotional drama, without being the slightest bit pretentious. It will politely ask you to suspend your disbelief occasionally, and if you play along, you’ll revel in the giddy pleasures of a kid who can fly by screaming at the ground, and a man who can raise a submarine from the depths with a wave of his hand.
This prequel is set in the 1960s, specifically during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which turns out to have been an even more sinister event than your history books led you to believe. It was actually the work of Sebastian Shaw, a veritable Swiss army knife of a villain – he’s a Nazi scientist, an invincible monster, and a James Bond nemesis rolled into one, and played with marvelous relish by Kevin Bacon. His evil scheme is executed with devilish, carefully cultivated treachery, but his goals are admirably straightforward. If you ever made a bar bet that Kevin Bacon would play one of the best screen villains someday, it’s time to collect.
The 60s setting is used to charming effect without becoming overwhelming. A supercomputer running reel-to-reel tape is viewed without irony as a marvel by the film, because the characters see it that way. There are lots of little references to the other X-Men films (and one that is both huge and drop-dead hilarious) but if you’re not familiar with them, you’ll never feel like you’re being left out of an inside joke.
One reason the period setting is so important is that it elevates the power and importance of the four senior mutant characters: Xavier, Magneto, Shaw, and Shaw’s telepathic henchwoman Emma Frost (January Jones.) The humans of the Sixties have no knowledge of mutants, and no effective way to defend themselves against these four titans. The arsenal of mankind is a chest of fragile toys to Magneto and Shaw. Xavier and Frost could become the secret masters of the world in a matter of weeks with their telepathy, if they joined forces.
This sets the stage for a much larger moral conflict than the earlier films’ focus on mutants as proxies for outsiders, misfits, individualists, or minorities. That theme is still present, but the main story of First Class is driven by the moral conflict between the four mightiest mutants, who can essentially do anything they want. Humans cannot stop them. They can only be thwarted by one another, or by their personal codes of honor. Look beneath the groovy Sixties exterior, and you can see something like a Greek tragedy about the passions and weaknesses of a quartet of gods, striding through a world that is just beginning to learn how to fear them.
This is really the tale of Magneto’s descent into a terrible destiny he can see coming for his entire life, as Xavier tries to save him from becoming the monster Shaw intended him to be. Fassbender went into this knowing he would be called upon to show the audience how a Holocaust survivor could become the brutal champion of a new master race, which he sees as “the next step in human evolution.” He pulls it off by finding Magneto’s tragic flaw – the total, willful absence of the compassion his best friend Charles Xavier has in such abundance.
“I have been at the mercy of men who were just following orders,” Magneto tells Xavier, at the climax of the story, in the moment when he casts aside the possibility of grace. “Never again.” He will spend the rest of his life believing he’s trapped in a war he didn’t start, against an enemy he can never afford to show mercy, because he can’t bring himself to accept Xavier’s offer to join the human race. Thus does a man who could have been anything choose to become the adversary of mankind.
Of course, the mutant heroes are people too. We never learn much about the villains, but this inaugural class of X-Men comes with a great assortment of little character beats that make them sympathetic and approachable. (Once again, George Lucas take note.) The girl who can instantly change to look like anything she wants nevertheless has body image issues. The guys regard their powers the way regular teenagers feel about their hot rods. We discover there is a perfectly understandable reason why Erik Lehnsherr is willing to run around calling himself “Magneto.” The smartest young man in the world misses the most obvious signals from the young woman who adores him. Xavier realizes that telepathy is exceptionally useful for picking up chicks.
X-Men: First Class is an exciting, funny, beautifully realized story about the power of moral choice, and the importance of empathy. It cares enough about its audience to execute many of its special effects the hard way, and uses the dense layers of backstory in the X-Men universe the same way the original Star Wars used its epic setting. So much is implied that you’ll be hungry for more, even though it’s over two hours long.
If you’re not a big comics fan, think about Nighcrawler from X2: X-Men United, look at the cast of First Class, and see if you can guess who his parents are. I suspect you’ll leave the theater wanting to know the rest of that story, and so many others.