Set in the 1960s, “First Class” depicts the origins of the epic battles between Professor X and Magneto by initially showing how the young men Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) started out as friends. After meeting through individual attempts at taking down Nazi-turned-mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) — who plans on a nuclear Armageddon leaving an apocalyptic Earth run by mutants — Charles convinces Erik that they’re going to need the their own army to fight mutant fire with fire.
With some help from CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and the Man In Black (Oliver Platt), the duo creates a team of mutants ranging from veteran Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to newcomers like Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones). After an attack from Shaw and his Hellfire Club, which results in the death of one mutant and the betrayal of another, the first class of X-Men hones their powers and prevents Shaw from sending off nukes in Cuba, thus implementing a global nuclear war.
That’s right. The X-Men helped end the Cold War and absolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. While that may seem unrealistic, it actually helps ground the film into some sort of reality along the flying humans and blue-skinned heroes. The post-World War II connections also shape the evolving relationship between Charles and Erik. Charles believes in the good nature of humans and dreams of a society where humans and mutants peacefully coexist. Due to his experience in the Holocaust, Erik believes that humans will reject the mutant minority and attempt to exterminate it because of its differences. These differing viewpoints establish a firm rift between the two friends that will never be resolved, causing them to form separate mutant leagues.
Centered around the dynamics between Charles, Erik and the other mutants, the film slowly builds from gathering the team together and culminates in a colossal confrontation with Shaw and his crew. The pacing never feels slow or over the top with CGI effects. Each scene builds upon the next, drawing the viewers further into the character development.
The tenuous bond that forms between Charles and Erik is shown in the strong performances by both McAvoy and Fassbender. McAvoy captures both the playful bachelor and respected professor personas of Charles. Although he begins by throwing back beers and fraternizing as a Ph.D. grad, McAvoy never fails to add at least a hint of scholarly wisdom in all of Charles’ actions. The character grows into the adorned teacher as he gives each mutant lessons in harnessing and controlling their powers. By the end of the film, it’s easy to see how the young professor becomes the honorable leader that Patrick Stewart portrayed in the previous films.
As we see McAvoy’s character grow, Fassbender delves into the ever-darkening world of Erik. Haunted by gruesome memories of a genocide-ridden past, Erik seeks only vengeance on those that took everything away from him, fueling his lack of faith in mankind’s tolerance of mutants. Fassbender’s cold, brutal demeanor characterizes Erik as a dangerous man who, although, is introduced as an antihero, eventually embraces the ideas of the men who he and Charles are fighting against, blindly becoming the villain he fought to defeat. Erik’s descent into evil also creates a leader figure in him, as Fassbender steadily becomes more assertive, convincing mutants to join him in his ruthless conquest.
However, the movie is not perfect. For those who actually know the comic-book lowre of the X-Men, most of the characters in “First Class” — as with the past films — are strewn together from vastly different timelines in the comics (Cyclops’ little brother becomes an X-Man before Cyclops does?). Also, the dialogue at times comes off cheesy, as the one-liners, catchphrases and attempted romances become quite tiresome by the time the second hour rolls around, as does Charles’ hackneyed telekinetic stance, which becomes slightly laughable after the tenth time he puts two fingers to his forehead. Regardless of these minor issues, “First Class” wipes the slate clean for the X-Men movies as Vaughn paves the road for a new trilogy of uncanny heroes.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that George Clooney starred in the Batman films preceding “Batman Begins.” In fact, he only starred in one of them.
The article also incorrectly referred to the previous films as a trilogy. In fact, there were four of them.