From Edward Rochester to Eric Lehnsherr, Michael Fassbender owns X Men: First Class, the prequel to the X Men film franchise directed by Matthew Vaughn. This installment covers a lot of ground, starting with the early childhoods of both Eric, later to become Magneto and his friend, for only a blink of an eye, Charles Xavier, who we’ll come to know as The Professor, played by James McAvoy. Their friendship is severed just as soon as it blossomed, but the groundwork is deftly laid to explore the complexity of what motivates Eric, and this is one of the strengths of the fifth installment. Like the Star Wars prequels focusing on Darth Vader’s quick rise and doomed fall, thankfully, this film isn’t so much concerned with the do-gooders but zooms in on the making of a villain, and Magneto is a deliciously complex antagonist, played with nuance and the same irresistible brooding intensity that Fassbender brought to Jane Eyre’s paramour. He is matched by a more sickeningly sinister villain Sebastian Shaw, performed by Kevin Bacon, who’s made playing the antagonist a fascinating art.
Kevin Bacon wreaks pure evil and does it with swinging Sixties style while James McAvoy reprises his role as a plucky, good-natured naivete, which seems to be the pigeon-hole American audiences have fitted for him, so take heed Mr. Fassbender, lest you find yourself stuck with the sulky beefcake role. McAvoy’s performance as Charles Xavier is a couple notches above his other Yankee box office hits like Wanted and Penelope, but anyone who has watched Atonement and appreciated the well-crafted original TV series Shameless or State of Play knows that McAvoy is a far better artist, who’s been given the American short shrift.
The X Men films, like all movie series, had lost creative steam with each follow up after the jaw-dropping second installment United. Where is it written that sequels have to outdo their previous incarnations with bigger explosions and supposedly edgier CGI? When we do find the Ten Commandments for action movie-making can we finally, for once and for all, abolish the racist trope of killing off the single African American character half way through the movie? Although groovy in its costumes and design since First Class takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis and includes plenty of footage of JKF and his address to the nation on October 22, 1962, this X Men has not only gone 60’s retro stylistically but seems to completely shrug off the Civil Rights roots that Stan Lee’s comic book series had championed. At least in the previous installments Storm or Ororo Iqadi T’Challa enjoyed an ample share of screen time with her male Euro-American counterparts, but there’s no such character to fill this huge void in First Class save for Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggert, who serves more as sassy and smart eye candy and has no powers of her own except for non-mutant cunning.
X Men V leaves a bounty of teasers for future installments, from finding out how Xavier loses his hair to, hopefully, the origin of Storm and her background. The story is gripping, the characters engrossing enough, and the special effects, impressive. We’re introduced to Mystique, who’s storyline like Rogue’s teases us with some interiority but is abandoned for more explosions and the building battle between Charles and Eric. We also get to meet Beast, Havok, and Banshee. If we can overlook the Black Dude Dies First Syndrome–this film barely bothers with tokenism–X Men: First Class is certainly an improvement from The Last Stand and Wolverine, but in a world of sequels, and prequels, and the looming crush of prequel sequels, is an improvement saying much or is that the best we can hope for?