X-MEN First Class Is The Best Of The Five X-MEN Films

X-MEN First Class is – arguably – the best of the five X-MEN films, thus far.

It is all that it promises, a big, expensive and glitzy summer box office smash that will delight and thrill. Superhero stories have gone beyond being adventures for comic book fans only, having plunged headfirst into the mainstream, especially the X-Men. This comic book franchise’s personalities evolved into major Marvel characters after initially finding themselves second fiddle to The Fantastic Four, somewhere between The Avengers and The Inhumans. The good news is that, despite some incidental flaws, X-Men First Class should have real staying power.

Now that mainstream moviegoers have fully embraced these characters, audiences have been crying for two things:

a)unknown actors to brand a new identity to the onscreen heroes and no more re-treads of how these heroes came to be. We don’t want to hear about Spiderman getting bitten by a spider, Superman coming to Earth from Krypton and Batman’s parents getting gunned down by a young Jack Nicholson. Movie audiences are hip…they don’t want to be treated like they aren’t up on the subject matter.

b) stories that are new, different and exciting. X-Men First Class delivers in this department as well with fresh new faces that are capable of breaking out in the same fashion as Christopher Reeve emerged from the Superman series, as Judy Garland got the Dorothy role in Wizard of Oz rather than Shirley Temple. Its why the Michael Keaton Batman had the double-edged sword of Nicholson’s presence so much larger than life that it overshadowed the Joker role (just compare how Heath Ledger took it to an entirely different level by creating the character onscreen rather than the amusing mix that was half Joker half Nicholson from The Shining).

As the Star Trek re-boot was just what the doctor ordered, this “re-boot” of a series that had the audacity to kill off Professor X brings things to a new dimension. “Witness the beginning” the trailer says, and for we original X Men fans, this biography finally does properly what countless re-workings of the birth of Superman, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Batman and their spawn have bored us with for decades…X-Men First Class establishes the superheroes with a new twist on the legend, even warping out of a universe created by the first X-Men movie.

British actor James McAvoy is not as perfectly cast as Jean Luc Picard was…indeed, Patrick Stewart could have stepped into the original X-Men role even had he not landed the Star Trek: Next Generation part. He was the epitome of Professor X, more so than Yul Brynner or Telly Savalas would have been had the role opened up in their respective times. It takes more than just a bald head…Marvel Comics appears to have modeled the comic book character on Patrick Stewart, not the other way around. Take note, Jack Nicholson.

The 32 year old actor seems much younger and he does a good job, though a bit upstaged by Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. The two actors have great chemistry together and it is too bad this couldn’t have been a prelude to an attempt for the two to launch the mutant school together. It’s no spoiler to say that their conflicting personalities generate the split in acceptable fashion. What is a surprise is how malevolent Kevin Bacon can be, in what is arguably his best acting job to date. Usually walking through his parts, Bacon digs into his Nazi character with a vengeance with a little bit of self-loathing to boot …noting how he has contempt for Hitler’s soldiers before he decides their hideous methods are effective…and clearly to his liking. Let’s just say the beginning of the film is too violent for youngsters so leave them home. Oliver Platt has refined his role here, a bit more warm and fuzzy than the abrasive Carl Anheuser character he created in 2009’s Roland Emmerich 2012. Michael Ironside also pulls out a similar role he played in 2009’s Terminator:Salvation. He’s credited as “Captain” in X-Men First Class but it is the same exact character from Terminator 4, General Ashdown. Ironside was also the voice of Colonel Moss in the 2008-2009 animated X-Men TV series.

The new faces are welcome and it is interesting how the older actors are here as mentors, of sorts. Sure, Platt has put on more poundage than Vincent D’Onofrio in his transition from the Matrix-ish Thirteenth Floor (1999) to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Craig Bierko from Thirteenth Floor fares better 12 years after than both Platt and D’Onofrio – you can see him in an episode or two of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where all these actors end up, because you can’t see him as Wolverine in SUPERHERO MOVIE (2008); his scenes reportedly deleted. That’s why director Michael Vaughn was smart to play the game and bring in the new with the old, these veteran actors nicely offset with a Lucas Till from Battle: Los Angeles (2011). J.J. Abrams had the right idea and other films will be using the Star Trek reboot as a template.

Critic Brandon Gray accurately states that “In its marketing, X-Men: First Class has straddled a murky line between prequel and reinvention”, but then he goes off on a tangent about the importance of Wolverine. Wolverine was not an original character and his absence (relatively speaking, there is an aside a la Terminator: Salvation tucked inside this one, but no additional scene after the closing credits, which all we critics were waiting for) …his absence actually gives X-Men their wings, if you will. Wish Cyclops and Iceman were in it, though, their absence is a mistake.

Matthew Vaughn’s script and direction are good and it is nice to see Bryan Singer producing rather than directing. His X-Men and X2 worked better than the Superman Returns reboot and we look forward to his new Battlestar Galactica. Vaughn’s foundation for this were his previous releases – De Niro’s Stardust, Nick Cage’s Kick-Ass and Daniel Craig’s Layer Cake, among others. This is his most shining moment, so far with a bit of an asterisk: Bill Clinton’s hijacked footage for the Jodie Foster film Contact was not as intrusive as the Kennedy stuff here. John F. Kennedy gets a big role in this feature film and, though a major part of the plot, it’s a bit distracting for this critic. But that’s ok, Vaughn has succeeded in following up the mighty mighty box-office AND critical success of THOR for Marvel Comics with another surefire winner.

The music, by the way, is very good. Sony Classical is releasing the Henry (I’m not Hugh) Jackman score. Jackman did Kick-Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, programmed synthesizer for Batman: The Dark Knight and delivers a beautifully moody score here.

Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He was a film critic for Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com and produces and hosts Visual Radio. Visual Radio is a fifteen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed John Lennon’s Uncle Charlie, Margaret Cho, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere, Marty Balin, Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.