The Star Wars prequels’ greatest sin wasn’t that they were shitty, but that they were disingenuous. Collectively, they labored–and failed–to force retroactive continuity that never existed in the first place, all under the pretense of explaining why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, culminating with that ridiculous, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I bring this up because X-Men: First Class is also a prequel, only it succeeds in many wonderful ways where the Star Wars prequels failed.
Right off the bat, let me say that about 80% of my enjoyment of this latest comic book blockbuster stems from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s performances as Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), respectively. Everything about them feels spot on. Charles is wise and arrogant, while Erik is angry and impetuous. Their two stories and their intersecting paths are brilliantly realized, perfectly highlighting the central conflict of their relationship. The first half of the film splits its time between Charles’ brotherly relationship with Raven Darkhölme (Mystique) and Erik’s globe-trotting, Nazi-hunting adventures (I could have used lots more of the Nazi hunting, as it is extremely badass).
The two meet, and the rest is history, literally. A chunk of the movie revolves around the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is kind of shoehorned in, but that’s okay. The Cuban finale is larger than life, like a sixties Hitchcock finale and like the finale from the first X-Men, so it’s really a callback and homage. Actually, there are a lot of things that don’t exactly work, but are okay nonetheless.
These hiccups are the same kinks from previous X-films. One-dimensional henchmen (X-Men: The Last Stand), awkward power explanations (X-Men), and only a few main characters that are fully fleshed out (X2). January Jones is pretty awful and useless, but so was Halle Berry’s Storm. (For the record, X-Men is solid, X2 is fantastic, X-Men: The Last Stand is terrible and I have zero interest in Wolverine).
A lot of these flaws, whether minor or major, did little to ruin my enjoyment of the picture because, overall, the film is a whiz-bam piece of pop-bang fun (with the aforementioned standout performances). The effects are solid, the action just inventive enough, and the film is cut together with kinetic energy. Kevin Bacon makes for a worthy villain (The River Wild anyone?). The film’s wide angle lensing is crisp, if unflashy. The score was a tad too boastful. Rose Byrne seemed to show up only when the plot deemed her necessary. But again, I say this was all okay. These things only matter when you’re bored, which I wasn’t.
This is also the first Matthew Vaughn picture I’ve really enjoyed. I don’t care for Layer Cake, I am mixed on Kick-Ass, and never saw Stardust. Though First Class doesn’t have a directorial stamp, Vaughn’s greatest achievement was casting McAvoy and Fassbender, so I’ll call it a win. None of the previous films were perfect, but this is probably as good as we’re ever going to get. For those diehards, I’d say this is on par with X2, make of that what you will. And as far as being a prequel, the best thing to say is the ending made me really want to see what comes next. The final moment is less Sith, meek and laughable, and more Batman Begins, hell yes and right on! (Magneto Begins?)