X-Education With Professor K: X-Men: First Class (2011)

With the release of the first X-Men film in 2000, audiences not only witnessed the dawn of the modern day superhero film boom, but also the beginning of a complicated franchise that would span sixteen years and nine films. With X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, Kayleigh Hearn and a rotating cast of merry mutants are revisiting the X-Men films from the very beginning, and examining the comic book storylines that inspired them. What would you prefer, yellow spandex?

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X-Men: First Class (2011)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Kayleigh: X-Men: First Class, the movie that saved the franchise and started a new trilogy set to conclude this month with X-Men: Apocalypse. I did not have high hopes for this movie. Though a prequel about Magneto and Professor X in the 1960s is a super solid concept, the last two X-Men movies had been nearly unwatchable, and the fact that this cast featured “No really, that’s an X-Men character?” bottom-of-the-barrelers like Azazel and Riptide didn’t help. But X-Men: First Class was a very pleasant surprise, and it comes so close to being a great movie that it’s painful when this movie stumbles. But hey, the yellow and blue X-Men costumes! Finally!

Dominic: For my money, this is the best, most pure X-Men experience we’ve ever had on screen. It utilizes a lot of characters that are far from beloved and strays from the source material in drastic ways, but it’s the first in the series to feel like a real X-Men story. Not coincidentally, it’s the first in the franchise not to predominantly focus in Wolverine.

Kayleigh: Wolverine’s absence is significant because we really don’t miss him! (Though Hugh Jackman’s succinct cameo is incredible.) I’d argue that First Class and its sequel rightfully steer the franchise away from Wolverine to make Magneto and Professor X the heart and soul of these movies. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were fantastically cast, and lightning struck twice when they found younger actors with as much chemistry as Stewart and McKellen. Xavier and Magneto are definitely the doomed love story of the X-Men films, with McAvoy and Fassbender believably establishing an unbreakable bond between the two men, despite the ideological differences that split the X-Men and the Brotherhood apart at the end. Of course these two guys are still playing chess in a plastic prison forty years later.

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Dominic: Ah, yes. The casting that launched a thousand ships. I think what also makes the new trilogy really special is the decision to move this origin tale back in time to when this story really began in the comics. We don’t get the original team and many characters and allegiances are rejiggered to suit the needs of the film, but they truly nail the spirit of the mythology. It may be the X-Men film that best embodies the core underlying metaphor of mutankind’s struggle. Singer’s first film handled the notion of “otherness” quite well as a stand alone cinematic exercise, but First Class grafts those ideas to the genre in more satisfying ways.

Kayleigh: The mutant as the “other” is interestingly explored by Mystique, who gets bumped up to major character status by a on-the-verge-of-superstardom Jennifer Lawrence. First Class changes character dynamics significantly by retconning Mystique to be Xavier’s foster sister. It’s a huge twist with no basis in the comics or the previous film trilogy, but it works. Rebecca Romijn was a scene-stealer as Mystique, but First Class is the first movie to seriously see her as a character. The movie asks what it means to have to “pass” as a normal human and hide her true self, and also shows her bucking against Xavier’s well-meaning but incredibly condescending paternalism. (The movie could also be titled, Check Your Privilege, Charles Xavier.) This girl needed a copy of The Feminine Mystique, stat.

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Dominic: I think the pseudo love triangle that forms between Xavier, Raven and Erik over this film and the next is strange, if only because they choose to give the most prominent female figure in the film nothing to do outside of acting out the ideological divide between the two male leads. It’s compelling, sure, and in its own sad way, more progressive than the last few films, but the X-Men mythos is so full of amazing women that the disservice repeatedly done to them in this franchise stings especially hard. Still, Raven’s arc feels like mana from heaven once we meet this stale approximation of Emma Frost (stiffly realized by January Jones) or a fundamental misunderstanding of Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz).

Kayleigh: The male gaze (or perhaps specifically, Matthew Vaughn’s gaze) is all over this film, to its detriment. This is the kind of movie where every female character undresses for the camera, whether stripping to reveal sexy 60s lingerie (Moira MacTaggert’s introduction–good thing she dressed up for that CIA stakeout) or down to nothing at all (Mystique is truly liberated when she goes nude). Mystique’s character arc is ultimately about how other men see her, which is both sad and frustrating. January Jones gave the most maligned performance in the film, and while she absolutely looks the part (the Emma Peel catsuit is both a clever ref to Emma Frost’s namesake and it looks better than 90% of her comics costumes), I don’t know what she could have done with a script that sends Emma Frost–EMMA FROST–out to fetch Sebastian Shaw some ice. Good lord! Angel is another potentially interesting female character absolutely shafted by the script, as this is also the kind of movie where all the characters of color are either dead or evil by the halfway point.

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Dominic: Yeah, okay, this brings me to Darwin, a character created by Ed Brubaker from his Deadly Genesis miniseries. Edi Gathegi plays the mutant with a natural kind of charisma that stood out from some of the more cardboard supporting roles in the film, but he gets the most ridiculous death in comic book movie history. Darwin’s mutant power is that he adapts to survive. They show him dipping his head into a fish tank and growing gills on his face. Shit like that. And yet, Shaw is able to kill him by absorbing a blast from Havok and putting in Darwin’s mouth. IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY FUCKING SENSE. From the minute Wolverine’s healing ability is presented in the first film, we have to accept that this furry Canuck is essentially immortal, but a black mutant whose powers theoretically make him impervious to damage is killed after like six minutes of screen time.

Kayleigh: The first time I saw First Class I had too much faith in the filmmakers, because I totally expected Darwin to return in the third act to fight Shaw. His power is adapting to survive, he couldn’t REALLY be dead! But no, they really fucked up. First Class is maybe two drafts and a really good editor away from being a great movie–it needed someone who could catch things like, “wait, by the end of the movie only ‘good’ mutants are a bunch of white guys?” But when it’s good, it’s really good. Every “Young Magneto: Nazi Hunter” scene is fantastic.

Dominic: I still remember when they originally planned to do a solo Magneto movie and thinking how stupid it would be, but Michael Fassbender made me wish he was the only person in First Class. Those sequences are amazing. McAvoy is good here, but he doesn’t really get anything meaty to work with until the next film. First Class is all Fassy. He is so singularly captivating on screen. It also follows my favorite trend in the X-Men movie franchise, which is that Magneto is always the “villain” except he makes more sense than the heroes 99% of the time. If I had one wish here it’s for Charles and Erik to be more evenly matched in terms of philosophical logic. Like, you want to feel torn between their dueling perspectives, but when the inevitable schism on the beach comes, I’m still baffled that anyone DOESN’T leave with Magneto.

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Kayleigh: Magneto is riveting. His scene in Argentina, with the knife and that pounding score? Frankenstein’s Monster, looking for his creator? Absolute chills, even now. Fassbender and McAvoy play off each other so well throughout the film that it’s disappointing that the finale is so uneven. McAvoy’s drunk, smarmy Professor X is my favorite character in the movie. Charles Xavier is a very hard character to get right–just look at how many comics vacillate wildly between “He’s the greatest man alive” and “he’s a scary bastard” with no middle ground. McAvoy’s Xavier strikes the perfect balance of being callow and stupidly horny but also absolutely dedicated to helping the mutants in his care. While the training montages do a good job developing him as compassionate teacher, by the final act the film can’t think of a rebuttal against Magneto other than Xavier bumbling a line about “following orders” and trying to knock Magneto’s helmet off. If the movie is truly Magneto’s origin story, it shoots itself in the foot by completing his character arc right here, whereas X-Men: Days of Future Past expands Xavier’s character in a really surprising way. (Spoiler alert: drugs.)

Dominic: It’s the kind of short sighted storytelling that happens when you’re serializing a narrative, but writing it in bite size increments. People complain about the MCU model all the time, but at least their development process seems to accept that sequels will happen and actually plan for them. First Class suffers a little from a long running time, but at least they utilize their time well enough. Most of the smaller characters get short shrift, but Charles, Erik and Shaw are three of the best performances in the franchise’s history. The idea that Sebastian Shaw could be reinvented as a Nazi war criminal who looks and sounds like Kevin Bacon is easily the best thing these movies have gifted us.

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Kayleigh: Despite being a little ungainly and uneven, X-Men: First Class is extremely successful in its three leads. McAvoy is the perfect mix of charm and smarm for the young, untested Charles Xavier. Fassbender’s Nazi-hunting Magneto was so powerful that even Marvel Comics, who would much rather ignore the Fox X-Men movies altogether, actually took notice and incorporated that more deeply into the original character. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, re-imagined as Xavier’s estranged foster sister, takes a character X-Men: The Last Stand threw away and puts her on a bold new path. The X-Men movies are back.

Dominic: The X-Franchise may lack the fluid cohesion of the more beloved MCU films, but First Class showed that they knew how to course correct. If there’s one thing that typifies the X-Men, it’s that their stories go on and on and no misfire is capable of stopping that. This dicey on paper prequel breathed new life into a series we were worried we’d already seen the best of. It’s never been this satisfying to be so wrong.

Kayleigh: Tomorrow we visit the Children of the Atom in their earliest adventures by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. PLUS A very special Claremont/Cockrum jam! Be there!

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