As promised, I saw X-Men: First Class yesterday with Kaye and Liz, and I am happy to report this movie lived up to my ridiculously high expectations. It was all about Fassbender, and since I was all about Fassbender, that's pretty much a recipe for cinematic bliss.
I'm strictly an X-Men movie fan, so I have no real grasp of the group's comic book lore - and frankly, any time I have looked up a film character and started reading about their comic book counterpart's history, I just end up getting confused. So, going into First Class, I was particularly interested in seeing how characters like Magneto, Professor X, and Mystique got their start - and what events happened that set them on the paths we see in X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand.
First Class opens with an excellent recreation of the concentration camp scene from the first X-Men, where a young Erik (Bill Milner) reveals his ability to control metal with his mind. The re-created scene is expanded with a brief shot introducing the evil scientist, Sebastian Shaw (a scene-stealing Kevin Bacon), who wants to exploit Erik's abilities. In the previous film, it was left to the imagination what horrors Erik endured in the camps, but now we witness his terror when he can't "perform" his metal trick on command, leading to his mother's murder, and the subsequent mental abuse and manipulation that's inflicted on his mind by a repulsively giddy Shaw. Raised to believe he's the only one of his kind, after the war (when Erik-as-Michael Fassbender comes on the scene) Erik makes it his mission to hunt down and destroy the monsters who wrecked his life, particularly Shaw. In a way, Erik's twisted father/son/creator/experiment relationship with Shaw mirrors Wolverine's history with Stryker. Both mutants suffered horribly at the hands of men who wanted to control and manipulate their powers and abilities, and both are faced with a choice of how they allow their pasts to influence their futures.
Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) beginnings stand in sharp contrast to Erik's - raised in the comfort of wealth and privilege, Charles goes on to university and makes a name for himself studying human genetic mutation. His childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is the only one who knows he's a telepath. This close history between Charles and Raven, a.k.a. Mystique, is a fascinating beginning for these two characters, given their later film history as passionate rivals on opposite sides of the mutant vs. human debate. Now, I love James McAvoy, but frankly he stood no chance of standing up to Fassbender's on-screen magnetism (no character pun intended). He was a good choice to play the high-minded idealist to Erik's hardened survival-minded pragmatism. And his delivery of mutant-themed pick-up lines was hilarious.
For someone like Charles whose as interested in helping mutants cope in society, at this point in his life it's interesting to see how even he exhibited a distinct lack of understanding toward mutants like Mystique whose abilities resulted in physical "abnormalities" instead of strictly internal mutations like his own telepathy. Now, I'm not familiar with Lawrence's previous film work, but I thought she did a fantastic job as the young Raven - she's completely believable as a young woman who simply wants to fit in, and struggles with the blue skin and scales that are exhibited when her mutation is fully exhibited. Raven is super-sweet here, but hurt and frustrated enough with Charles's (her first crush?) inability to accept her atypical beauty that the progression to the hardened, human-hating warrior Mystique later becomes is an understandbly slippery slope. I thought the set-up for Raven's fascination with Erik was extremely well-played. Given his history, Erik whole-heartedly affirms Raven's mutation as her own brand of unique beauty - and with lines like that delivered by a mesmerizing guy with Fassbender's looks, Raven's fascination with Erik is easy to understand.
Speaking of Erik, he is the linchpin on which the entire film rests, and Fassbender carries the burden with a debonair, dangerous sort of grace. As my friend Rachel so astutely pointed out on Facebook, when you think about it, Magneto is really just the Rochester of the mutant world - and I couldn't agree more. Erik is the character I long to see redeemed and understood. I want him to find peace, to let go of his rage and channel that into building a future for himself instead of allowing his past to define his future. Fassbender gives Erik a breath-taking intensity and focus, whenever he's on-screen that is where your focus will lie. Since I love studying World War II-era history, I thought the scenes prior to Erik and Charles's meeting were especially fascinating. The man was a one-man crew bent on hunting down the Nazis who destroyed his family and delivering his own special brand of justice. And not that I'm an advocate of vigilantism, but I'm not gonna lie, I loved watching Erik's quest.
There's this brief shining moment, when Erik finds a friend in Charles, that a part of me wished that the subsequent X-Men films hadn't been made yet - that we have this whole glorious history of their friendship to watch unfold, with no predetermined end in sight. Fassbender and McAvoy have a wonderful on-screen chemistry together. Two sides of the same coin, Erik is the lean and hunger tiger, poised to pounce, while Charles is the calmer, more measured - but equally passionate - flip side. When they're both on the same page, recruiting mutants for a cover CIA op, that was so much fun. Those scenes were great little snapshots of the whole movie's "swinging sixties" vibe. Erik and Charles, on a mission to change the world, the future wide open with limitless possibilities - and Fassbender allows Erik to look completely happy and at ease for the first time in the movie, which will drive you nuts if you let it when you start thinking about Magneto's future.
I read a couple of reviews that likened the feel of this movie to a Sean Connery-era James Bond caper - and that description is completely right on the money. Director Matthew Vaughn delivers a wildly entertaining, globe-spanning adventure, and in the best Bond tradition the action spans the globe, from France to Argentina (didn't Fassbender look divine in white? *g*) to Las Vegas. With colorful, exotic locales, a few instances of women dressed in their best go-go girls "outfits," Vaughn tops it all off by resurrecting the Russians, a sixties-era tried-and-true villain. *wink* As Shaw, Kevin Bacon positively chews the scenery in the best Ernst Blofeld villain tradition, complete with a luxury ship (rather reminscent of Thunderball). There's even the requisite, loves to show off her cleavage female sidekick, Emma Frost, played by the horribly HORRIBLY cast January Jones. Now, I get that a character named Frost, whose mutant ability is transforming into a living diamond, is supposed to have a sort of "ice queen" vibe, but Jones just comes off as so vapid. I definitely preferred the Emma Frost we briefly met in Wolverine (that was one of the more interesting jumps in continuity IMO).
Another interesting continuity jump involves the character of Moira MacTaggart, here played by Rose Byrne and introduced as a potential love interest for Charles. In The Last Stand, Taggart is briefly introduced as an actual doctor and long-time colleage of Xavier's, played by Olivia Williams. So, that was an interesting career change. *wink* I thought Byrne's chemistory with McAvoy was pretty non-existent, but she did the whole passionate advocate for mutants with the CIA thing fairly well. And I did love the scene at the end of the film, where she promises Charles that she'll never reveal the location of his school - and in a moment of heart-rending nobility like only James McAvoy can play, Charles wipes her memory. Poor woman, never to kiss McAvoy again? Tragic.
While this movie was all about Erik (thank you Fassbender), with Xavier a distant second, I want to mention a few other mutants. Jason Flemyng, my darling Danny in Primeval, plays the evil, demon-like shapeshifter Azazel. And while it was great to see a favorite on the big screen, am I ever going to get the chance to see Flemyng play a marginally (at least) heroic character in a big-screen flick? Please? :) On the side of the good guys, I really enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones's role as Sean Cassidy/Banshee, but I have to ask, was anyone else completely distracted by the guy's uncanny resemblance to Rupert Grint and the Weasleys?! Somebody call Mr. Weasley, I've found his missing American son.
Nicholas Hoult was fantastic as Hank McCoy/Beast. His early crush on Raven is adorable, and his result of his well-intentioned efforts to "cure" his early mutation (just big animal-like feet), is really quite wrenching to witness. Hoult, I think, bears an uncanny resemblance to James Marsden, the later screen incarnation of Scott Summers/Cyclops. He really could be Marsden's younger brother at the least, especially when you first meet Scott in X-Men. Hoult's similarity to Marsden distracted me from Lucas Till as Alex Summers/Havok - who, if the film keeps up with comic book lore, is actually Scott's brother (the two can generate the same type of destructive, laser-like power). Oh, I though he's not a mutant, I can't forget to mention how much fun it was to see Oliver Platt, one of the CIA suits whose expertise happens to be mutant research.
I absolutely loved the way the climax of the film is set around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Tying a super hero movie into a real-world historical event like that is just rife with fascinating possibilities, and this movie delivers with explosions and destroyed subs and barely averted war galore. And John F. Kennedy acquitted himself really well in this movie, I've got to say. *wink*
The emotional heart of the climax is when Erik goes after Shaw - did their confrontation remind anyone but me of Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back? Or am I just that geeky of a fangirl? (I'm guessing the latter, but I thought I'd ask anyway.) :) I was half expecting Shaw to go all "Erik, I am you father!" Anyways, Star Wars references aside, I thought Fassbender played Erik's turmoil during this sequence brilliantly. Up to this point he's been on Charles's side, and while there's genuine friendship and camraderie between them, Fassbender always has Erik hold something in reserve. That something is what's unleashed when he shuts Xavier out and kills Shaw. The irony of this all is that while he rejects Charles's worldview, it's only thanks to his friend's help that he's finally able to control his power and become the focused, driven Magneto we know from the later films.
Now, I understand in the comics Xavier becomes crippled in a fight with an alien. However, First Class suggests an alternate origin for Xavier's injury, one rich with implications for the Xavier/Erik friendship. When Erik goes completely out of control and attempts to kill the Russian and American soldiers, Moira tries to shoot him. Erik deflects the bullets and one strikes Charles, severing his spine. Having Erik responsible for crippling his only friend, the one who knows his darkest secrets and deepest fears is heart-breaking. It adds whole new layers of depth to the relationship we see between the older Charles and Magneto. The history and experiences the two share in this film, and the genuineness and depth of their friendship, is gloriously well-played by Fassbender and McAvoy. I absolutely loved seeing the bond of friendship develop between Charles and Erik, and I really think only actors of Fassbender and McAvoy's caliber could sell the connection between them, make a friendship and understanding that transcends such polar-oppsite worldviews heartbreakingly believable.
X-Men: First Class is top-notch entertainment from start to finish. Vaughn directs the scene changes and large cast with aplomb, and makes one care (or revile, depending on their personality) about each character. Henry Jackman delivers a rousing score that does a decent job of echoing the slickly produced sixties action pictures that this movie owes so much to in tone and style. I desperately hope Vaughn & company get to make a sequel to First Class - this set-up and core cast have so much possibility. And yes, I confess, I want further opportunity to see Fassbender put his unique spin on the Magneto character. He owns this movie, and his tour-de-force performance as the tortured Erik deserves a second outing. Pretty please?
So...I'll end this ridiculously long post with a few gratuitious Michael Fassbender-as-Erik pictures, because I can. :)
Oh, yes, that's nice. Very nice. :)
So, if you've seen First Class I'd love to hear your thoughts - and if you're not an X-Men fan, might I suggest this is an excellent place to start?