After the failures that were “X-Men The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Fox set out to course correct its X-Men franchise. With its attempt to soft reboot the series, Fox would try something different with “X-Men: First Class.” Matthew Vaughn was brought in to helm the film, which had a 1960s setting and lack of any recognizable X-Men, instantly making the film stand apart from the others.
The risk paid off and the film was a success, helping to bring the series back to life. However in the next film, “X-Men Days of Future Past,” many familiar faces (including “X-Men” and “X2: X-Men United” director Bryan Singer and much of the cast of the first three films) would return. That causes this film to be a bit of anomaly. That said, it is still the best film in the X-Men franchise. Don’t agree? Let us explain…
15. THE SETTING
The 1960s setting is one that we don’t often see in superhero films. The choice to set it during the time of Kennedy’s Camelot was not only necessary, based on the timeline established by earlier films in the cinematic universe franchise, but creating a parallel between the atomic age and the mutant age is a smart one. The X-Men were created during this atomic age and this film is the only instalment in the series that really matches the tone of the early issue of the X-Men comics, bringing to bear the themes of the team’s creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, in “Uncanny X-Men” #1.
On the visual side of things, the retro aesthetic helps the film stand out not only from other X-Men movies but other superhero films in general. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” are also period films, but neither of them is as reliant and intertwined with its historical setting as “X-Men: First Class.”
14. THE DIRECTION
Matthew Vaughn’s direction was much different than that of Bryan Singer. The film’s tone is much less serious than the first two X-Men films but never strays into parody or thinking that it’s smarter than the source material. Whereas more than a decade earlier the original X-Men film mocked its comic roots and tried to hide the fact it was sourced from the comic, “First Class” fully embraces it.
From the editing to the music to the camera movement, the film has a fun and loose style that really reflects the mood of both the early 60s and the young mutants who have yet to become jaded by the discrimination levied upon them by humans. The palette of the film is more colorful and so are the character’s spirits and world views. The next instalment in the main X-Men story would literally open in a post-Apocalyptic camp, so this film’s lighter tone may prove to be the only time we see it in the series.
13. BALANCE OF METAPHOR
The X-Men have always been used as a metaphor for the oppressed. Some films, mainly the Wolverine-centric ones, seem to push this aside, whereas the first three films might go a little too far into beating the audience over the head with the fact that they are watching an allegory. “First Class,” however, manages to avoid coming off as preachy or even insensitive. The film revisits Magneto’s past as a Jewish boy in a concentration camp, but keeps these scenes very human and grounded (and doesn’t do anything so incredibly stupid and insensitive as have him destroy a camp using his mutant powers).
This is also another area where the film’s setting helps to add layers and depth. We all know the 1960s were a time a civil unrest where minority groups and those oppressed began to stand up and protest on a large scale. The film doesn’t exactly practice what it preaches, killing the only black mutant after only a few scenes, but the point still stands: this film balances the mutant allegory better than any instalment in the franchise.
12. DIFFERENT X-MEN
Wolverine. Cyclops, Jean Grey. Storm. The X-Men comics feature thousands of mutants and yet all adaptations seem to focus on these same few mutants. Yes, these are some of the best characters, but some variety is nice. By not hard rebooting the series, the film was left with no other choice other than to focus on some second stringers.
Sure, Emma Frost was wasted, but considering all the other truly great X-Men characters that were wasted in cameos in previous films, it’s a minor offense. While she might not have been as interesting as her comic counterpart, she does have a large role in the film and has a few moments to shine. Nicholas Hoult played a younger, more immature Beast than the one Kelsey Grammer played in “The Last Stand” and a different Hank McCoy than the stoic doctor that is usually present. Moria MacTaggert is a the kind of character that wasn’t seen in previous X-Men films and created an interested dynamic. Havok, Banshee, Darwin, and Angel Salvadore were never the most memorable characters in the comics, but “First Class” made them into interesting additions, so much so that their presence was missed in future instalments.
11. CHARLES AND ERIK
Two of the characters from the previous films that do reappear are Professor X and Magneto, although here they are just Charles and Erik. After years of seeing these two as enemies, the audience finally got the chance to see the two during the time when they were friendly, something that was frequently alluded to or talked about. And it did not disappoint.
Seeing a young Charles Xavier use his powers to flirt with women was uncharacteristic and initially a shock to the system. At the same time, we see shades of the leader that Charles will eventually become. James McAvoy is able to portray seemingly contradictory character traits and have it come off as believable. Erik’s transformation into Magneto is not quite as extreme, but Micheal Fassbender portrays the character with subtlety and respect that is uncommon in superhero films. The two together do the unthinkable: they manage to upstage Stewart and McKellan as the definitive Professor X and Magneto.
10. J.LAW STILL CARED
Not only are McAvoy and Fassbender incredible in the film, but so is Jennifer Lawrence. “First Class” came out at a time before Lawrence became one of the biggest celebrities on the planet. She is so endearing and charismatic as Raven that it’s obvious why she became America’s Sweetheart. Mystique is more than the henchwoman she was in the previous films, and Lawrence does the most with what she is given.
However, this would be the only time we’d see Lawrence give her all to the X-Men series. With her increased stardom, she was given a bigger role in subsequent films, which she clearly was not enthusiastic to be in. The fact that she went from undergoing hours of body paint in this film to the quicker and easier body suit in later films is a good representation of Lawrence’s interest in the X-Men series. That said, luckily this Oscar winning actress gave one hundred percent to the character in at least one instalment in the series.
9. THE WOLVERINE CAMEO
Even though technically Wolverine only has three solo films, a case could very easily be made that “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” are the only X-Men movies that are not Wolverine films. And while “Apocalypse” forces in a Logan cameo, here it’s quick and happens in the natural flow of the story. No one went into the film expecting to see Wolverine, so his brief appearance was a pleasant surprise. It was a nice nod to the only person to appear in every film in the series at that point, and a great treatment of the character.
Superhero films — especially X-Men films — are filled with cameos, yet none are as memorable as Logan’s in “First Class.” What was thought of as a fun little joke actually proved to be reference in future films, making the cameo more than a simple gag. Plus, it was the first time we got to hear Logan talk the way everyone knows Logan really talks.
8. HONORED CONTINUITY
“First Class” was a soft reboot of the X-Men series, so it didn’t completely restart the franchise and abandon everything from the previous films. Being set years before the other instalments allowed the film to not have to directly deal with continuity problems, but still present it. Emma Frost and Moria MacTaggart were already two of the many character cameos in previous films, but instead of being a slave to continuity, “First Class” decides to create a small continuity problem for the good of the story.
Going back and viewing the X-Men films made before but set after “First Class” will raise questions like, “Shouldn’t Character-A be more familiar with Character-B,” or “Why does this character say X happened when Y happened?” But ultimately, what matters more than continuity is making a great film. It’s always preferable to have a film fit into the perimeters of continuity, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
7. THE COSTUMES
The previous X-Men films strayed away from the colorful costumes of the comics, even having Wolverine make a what is now cringeworthy joke about yellow spandex. “First Class” has the X-Men wearing outfits similar to those that the team wore in their first appearance in the comics. The blue and yellow is something we haven’t seen before or since. This film, however, has the BEST X-suits, at least until the ones the audience got a small glimpse of at the end of “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
The outfits make sense in the context of the story and somehow come off looking better than the black leather of the earlier X-Men films. In addition to the X-Men costumes, the film is also filled with stylish and cool ’60s fashion, from Erik’s turtleneck to Raven’s boots. Emma Frost’s costume isn’t quite as ridiculous as it is in the comics, but it’s just ridiculous enough that it works, both in context and as a shout-out to her comic book appearance.
6. THE SCALE
Compared to the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe, the X-Men films have always had a smaller scale. We’re not saying this is necessarily true in terms of characters, but in terms of set pieces. That said, “X-Men: The Last Stand” was supposed to be the be-all, end-all. “First Class” brought the series back down to Earth. Being set in a time before mutants were publicly known, the film really had no choice but to up the stakes.
That said, like many other things in the film, this “restriction” actually helps it. To set the climax during the Cuban Missile Crisis is a downright genius move. The audience is given a glimpse of what will happen if the heroes fail; of course, those that were alive for the crisis have their own real life experience and fears to help build the stakes. On top of this, the audience knows from the previous films that many of the primary characters live, but that’s not what the film is about. The film is about the characters, not the fate of the world, though both remain grave.
5. IT SAVED THE FRANCHISE
“X-Men: The Last Stand” was a film that seemingly took some of the smaller problems that the previous X-Men films had and amplified them. Characters were introduced just to be wasted, the mutant allegory blurred the lines of subtext and text, lacked any sense of fun, and didn’t even compensation that lack with any real depth. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” did similar things and found even more ways to be unbearable. Not only did they fail as X-Men films, they failed as films full-stop.
The X-Men series could’ve stopped right there and who knows, maybe the rights would’ve reverted back to Marvel. Some might’ve preferred that, but because of this film’s success, the X-Men series was put in a unique position of being able to continue storylines over two decades. Characters, themes and settings from what is arguably the first modern superhero film continue to this day and into the seeable future. All of that is possible because of the success of “X-Men: First Class.”
4. IT LAID THE GROUNDWORK
One of the most frustrating things about how good “X-Men: First Class” is what followed. This film sets up a bright future for the franchise. It introduced a solid new cast and didn’t leave the characters in the place they were when “X-Men” began, giving them future instalments to flesh their characters out. The Cuban Missile Crisis climax was seemingly the beginning of a new series that would tie in with historical events and play off the viewer’s own knowledge of history.
But much like the optimism of the 1960s would disappear, so would the optimism felt for the X-Men series. Singer would return as director, and while “Days of Future Past” is a solid instalment, it was more of Singer refining what he had began with his first two X-Men pictures than continuing what Matthew Vaughan had started. That said, this film does a great job of setting up for the future and you can’t fault it for the mistakes that followed.
3. MORAL COMPLEXITY
While most of the X-Men films have a sense of moral complexity, owing to that of its comic book forebears, it’s important not to overlook it. Sure, Sebastian Shaw’s plan to create nuclear war is a tad bit “mustache-turning,” but the film does give an explanation as to why he wants it. Sure it’s flimsy, but it’s better than nothing and in many ways, it works as a cinematic supervillain venture.
But the real complexity comes from Charles and Erik. We’ve seen them have their ideological differences in the past, but they were always enemies, at the very most frenemies. However, having two friends express their different ways of seeing the world is made all the more better when the audience sees the experience and reasons why these characters felt this particular way. Add Raven into the mix and you have a film that features a gray scale of moral stances, making its audience truly have to choose sides.
2. A TRUE SUPERVILLAIN
Okay, we agree that Sebastian Shaw isn’t as nuanced as Magneto or even Stryker, but he doesn’t need to be. And while philosophical disagreements are interesting and help add to the complexity of the film and its themes, it would be a waste to have a film feature characters with incredible powers just to have them simply disagreeing with each other.
Sebastian Shaw was a great choice for a villain. He was a mutant so powerful that it creates a real sense of drama as to how the X-Men would be able to stop him. Having a mutant as the main villain was a nice change of pace from the government agency or mutant-hating man, which had already been overdone at this point. While subtly is important and welcomed, superhero films should have a sense of spectacle to them. There was speculation that Kevin Bacon took up this role to recoup some money he lost to Bernie Madoff, but he still shines in the film.
In ensemble films, chemistry between the cast is absolutely essential. The chemistry between the characters here is extraordinary and even better than it was with the casts of the original films. McAvoy and Lawrence do a great job of portraying their pseudo-brother/sister relationship and give the feeling that they have known and cared for each other for years. Hoult and McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender, Fassbender and McAvoy, Hoult and Fassbender; any combinations of the major characters works. Even the villains and the younger mutants have a great sense of chemistry and camaraderie.
Chemistry is one of those things that when it’s working, it’s very easy to overlook. But here it’s so good that it’s apparent. And that great chemistry would never be matched in future films for numerous reasons. Whether it’s a change in character dynamics, an actor not giving their all, or a character being written out, it only makes it that much clearer how great the chemistry was in this first film of the new X-Men dynasty.
Do you think First Class was first class? Let us know in the comments!