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Much like an awesome party where someone suddenly showed up with a suitcase full of tainted MDMA, the X-Men film franchise got real bad, real fast. From the dizzying (well) highs of X2 the franchise had laid two massive turds in a row and was now in the unenviable position of having exactly as many bad films as good ones (also known as the Star Trek ratio). What was to be done?
Alright, all joking aside, the idea for a movie about the early days of Xavier’s School for Gifted Child Soldiers had been knocking about since the shooting of X2, and as an idea it’s pretty damn bad. Making a movie about the earliest adventures of the X-Men is like making a movie about John Lennon and focusing solely on his time in the Quarrymen. That was the worst part. Virtually all the good stuff came later. For a while. Then things got really, really awful.
But First Class also shares much of its DNA with what was originally going to be the second instalment of the X-Men Origins spin off series, Magneto. After Wolverine Origins bombed so hard that the box office was glowing in the dark, the ideas for Magneto were bundled up and worked into First Class.
So how does this grab-bag of sewn together bad ideas and discarded movie bits work as a film?
Surprisingly well! Except when it doesn’t. It’s complicated.
The movie takes us back to the very first scene of the very first movie, with young Erik Lensherr being dragged away by the Nazis after being separated from his mother and wrecking their fence with his magnet powers. Being able to write sentences like that is one of the reasons I do this. Anyway, Erik is taken to the office of Doctor Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), an evil Nazi scientist but not the evil Nazi scientist named Schmidt you’re thinking of. So, I’ll just set my stall out right now; there are X-men movies I love and X-men movies I hate and First Class is both. For me, it’s the most uneven film in the franchise (so far, I still haven’t seen Apocalypse or The Wolverine). There is some stuff here that I just loathe and some that I think is the best in the whole series, it’s a real wild ride. This scene though, is chillingly brilliant. Schmidt offers Erik some chocolate and says how he doesn’t approve of these ghastly Nazis and their beastly ways and just when you might almost buy it the camera’s perspective flips…
Schmidt tries to get Erik to move a single Reichsmark with his powers. But Erik can’t do it so Schmidt tries to give him incentive by bringing his mother in and threatening to shoot her unless Erik moves the coin. He can’t and Schmidt shows that he’s not a bluffing man and shoots her right in front of him. This causes Erik’s powers to kick in and he trashes Schmidt’s office and kills his two guards but doesn’t actually do anything to Schmidt which seems a tad unfair, honestly.
Meanwhile, in America, my second least favourite scene in the whole movie starts (oh you’d better believe I got them ranked) where a young Charles Xavier wakes up in the middle of the night and finds an equally young Raven rifling through his kitchen for food after running away from home from her parents who hate her (I mean, they named her “Raven” what further proof do you need?). And within like, five seconds, Xavier has invited Raven to stay and now she’s his step-sister just like that. Okay, so coupla little points. Just little ones. Gonna set them up over here all nice like.
Point 1, who’s the 13 year old whose fanfiction Fox just callously ripped off? Pay the kid, you monsters.
Secondly, okay movie? You want to make Xavier and Mystique siblings? Fine. That’s fine. Mystique turning out to be secretly related to everyone is practically her superpower by this point. She’s been Nightcrawler’s mother, Rogue’s mother, Wolverine’s uncle…she’s secretly related to me for cryin’out loud.
So just make them siblings. It’s fine. You don’t have to have this whole rigmarole because it makes no sense. Charles just decides that she can stay? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s not in the kid’s jurisdiction. But now, we have to assume that Chucky boy’s parents just decided that this was cool and let her stay. But you can’t do that. You can’t just keep kids that wander into your kitchen in the middle of the night. You’re thinking of cats.
Fast forward twenty years and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is now studying in Oxford while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) waitresses. Oh, and she’s posing as his sister. You know. One of those sisters with a different accent from you despite being raised in the same home. Now, one of the things I love about James McAvoy’s Xavier (apart from the fact that McAvoy is just casually killing it) is that, unlike Patrick Stewart’s Xavier, the movie makes clear that he’s not all wise and all knowing and the movie leans quite hard into the fact that, on a fundamental level, Charlie Xavier just doesn’t get it. As Gentleman of Tumblr, Captain Snoops succintly put it:
And for the first time, we get a movie that actually acknowledges this. Xavier is Orgasm Dude. He’s a mutant, sure, but one whose power gives him immense advantages, next to no drawbacks, and, oh yes, he’s a fabulously wealthy white dude to boot. Little wonder that he doesn’t really seem to get what the big problem is and why humans and mutants can’t get along. Because, to all practical purposes, he’s never experienced what it’s actually like to be a mutant. He hasn’t really faced discrimination because who doesn’t love orgasms?
Meanwhile, Erik has had the very good fortune to grow up to be Michael Fassbender and is tearing around the world hunting down Nazis and cutting them up a treat. These scenes honestly make me wish X-Men Origins: Magneto had gone ahead because they are just awesome. Also awesome? Fassbender. He brings an incredible mix of savage rage and suave, graceful coolness, like a leopard in a finely tailored suit. If you were ever unsure as to why so many people wanted him to play Bond, these scenes should set you straight. Also, he’s Irish.
Meanwhile in Las Vegas, CIA special agent Moira McTaggart is staking out a casino as part of a secret operation by this movie to flip The Last Stand and Wolverine Origins the biggest birds imaginable. If there were one or two continuity gaffes I’d just put it down to sloppiness, but this movie is so actively going out of its way to erase the previous two from continuity that it’s almost hilarious. X3 says Moira McTaggart was a Scottish scientist in her thirties around the turn of the millennium? First Class says “Nuts to you. She was a CIA agent in the sixties.” Origins says Emma Frost was a young girl being held prisoner by Stryker in the seventies? First Class says “I think you mean an older supervillain working for Sebastien Shaw ten years prior”. X3 says Magneto and Xavier recruited Jean Grey into the X-Men? First Class says “Magneto was long gone before then”. X3 says “stop being so mean”, First Class says “Make me, bitch.”
Anyway, McTaggart is tailing one Colonel Hendry who the CIA suspects might be colluding with the Russians which was considered bad form in the period. Instead, she discovers that Hendry has been turned by the Hellfire club, a vast conspiracy of…like…five people. The Hellfire club are mutants and are led by Erik’s old bugbear Schmidt, who now goes by the name “Sebastien Shaw”.
Now look, Bacon is actually pretty good in this role but Shaw just bugs me as a villain, mostly because he feels like two or three characters who were just smushed together to form one and he’s just a mess. Like, he’s got too much going on. He’s a Nazi scientist who experiments on mutants to learn more about them despite the fact that he’s a mutant himself and he has the power to absorb energy which also keeps him from ageing for some reason and also apparently has given him the ability to learn and speak American English flawlessly and without any trace of an accent in only twenty years and he wants to destroy the world. That’s a lot. But if Shaw is a mess, his right hand woman Emma Frost is a complete garbage fire.
I mean, say what you will about Fox’s treatment of Deadpool, they only fucked him up once. This is their second swing and a miss at Emma Frost. How do you mess up Emma Frost? She’s a blonde bombshell with telepathy and diamond hard skin and a lacerating wit that can strip your ego to the bone with a single bon mot. And you give a part like that to January Jones!?
I mean, who else was in the running for this part?
Moira discovers that Shaw is pressuring Hendry to support the placement of US nuclear missiles in Turkey. Hendry is not quite Armageddon-keen but Shaw puts the hurt on him until he acquiesces and has his pet teleporter, Azazel, spirit Hendry back to Washington so that he can support the motion to put nukes in Turkey. So…couple of questions. Was Hendry really planning on just no-showing that meeting? What would the transcript read like?
SECRETARY OF DEFENCE ROBERT MCNAMARA: Colonel Hendry’s our guy on Near Eastern anti-Soviet strategy, what’s he say about this? Is he here?
GENERAL MAXWELL DAVENPORT TAYLOR: Nah, he’s in Vegas getting a lapdance from January Jones.
SECRETARY OF DEFENCE ROBERT MCNAMARA: Ha! Lucky bastard. He’s got the right idea. What say we bail and head out to Hooters?
(Meeting adjourns as the entire Executive Committee of the National Security Council heads out to Hooters)
McTaggart’s supervisors think she’s crazy and strongly suspect she might be a woman, so she’s forced to look elsewhere for answers. She finds Charlie Xavier in Oxford and brings him and Raven to CIA headquarters to give her bosses a briefing on mutants and how they exist and all.
The brass don’t buy it until Xavier demonstrates that he can read their minds and suddenly they believe in mutants and find that they do not care for them at all. They get taken into custody by The Man in Black.
Yes, weirdly, they get a pretty big name actor (Oliver Platt) to play a pretty important character in this story and they don’t give him a name. He’s just The Man in Black. And he is not cool enough to pull that off. The Man in Black tells Xavier and Raven that he’s always believed that mutants were real but that everyone in the agency thought he was a kook. He then takes them to his massive off-site facility that he apparently runs because the higher ups in the CIA were all “Oh, that wacky man in black. Let’s just give him his own multi-million dollar base fully staffed and equipped with bleeding edge tech and hope that keeps him out of trouble, the nut.” Also, the subtitles in this thing have got to be taking the piss.
Anyway, The Man in Black has tracked down Shaw so the CIA, with Xavier in tow, launches a raid on his yacht to bring him in. Meanwhile, Magneto has also shown up to take a shot at Shaw but he gets punched into the ocean by Emma Frost whose diamond hard skin also allows her to instantly change hairstyle.
Is that a petty critique?
Yes. Yes it is.
Erik tries to stop Shaw’s submarine from escaping and almost drowns until Xavier dives into the water and telepathically convinces him to let go. And so we get our first meeting between Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier.
This review is coming off a lot more negative than I’d have expected given my feeling towards this film. The fact is, it’s sloppy and uneven and it fails in a lot of the things that it tries to do. But I cut it a lot of slack because the one most important thing it had to do it does so, so well that the rest doesn’t even really matter. The movie sets itself the task of portraying the friendship between Magneto and Charles Xavier as one between two very, very different men that is nonetheless grounded in deep, mutual respect and love. And when that friendship can no longer withstand the ideological forces pushing them down different paths it has to feel real and it has to feel absolutely heart-breaking. And…yeah. That is the one element that the movie absolutely nails and nails perfectly and that is entirely down to the work of McAvoy and Fassbender. There is a chemistry between them that…ho boy am I gonna catch flak for this but…
They’re better than McKellan and Stewart.
Unfortunately, First Class’ weakest element turns out to be the titular First Class, that is, the first team of mutants that Xavier and Magneto recruit to take down Shaw. Magneto isn’t really into being a team player, but like many a future terrorist he’s willing to work with the CIA if it gets him what he wants, namely Shaw’s bollocks in a stylish tote bag. At the super secret CIA base Xavier accidentally outs a young scientist, Hank McCoy, as a mutant when he reads his mind and just blabs it to everybody.
Beast is working on a cure for his mutation despite the fact that it’s…big feet. That’s it. Dude’s got big feet and he can pick stuff off the ground with his toes. Anyway, he and Raven hit it off and he asks for a sample of her blood to help him in his research. Then Magneto drops by to tell Raven that she is beautiful just the way he is, and just peaces out back to Planet Boss. It is hilarious. Anyway, The Man in Black shows Xavier Cerebro, a machine built by Hank that Xavier will later take credit for building like he’s frickin’ Bob Kane. Xavier uses the machine to track down various mutants to work for the CIA as part of a covert Black Ops team.
They recruit Sean Cassidy who goes by Banshee and was one of very few Irish superheroes in the comics and is American here and that’s fine. That’s fine. He can fly, emit sonic blasts and doesn’t know that the word Banshee means “Fairy Woman” in Irish so we got an all-time great superhero here.
Then there’s Havok, who’s Cyclops’ older brother who can shoot energy hula-hoops because sixties. Darwin is a black cab-driver who can instantly evolve to survive anything and lastly there’s Angel who SUCKS.
Seriously, Angel is the worst. Her power is spitting flaming acid (gross) and flying with her massive, membranous insect-like wings which are exactly like the kind of wings that angels don’t have. And to top it all, calling her “Angel” is just asking for her to be confused with the other Marvel superhero called “Angel”.
During the montage, Erik and Charles also try to recruit a certain hairy Canadian who promptly dismisses them in the most vulgar terms.
Okay, the “Go fuck yourself” scene is hilarious. Problem is, the camera then lingers like a creeper just so we’re absolutely sure that yes, they really did get Hugh Jackman to just drop by for an F bomb. Like, movie, just be cool. Yes, it’s awesome that you got Jackman to come to your party but you ruin it if you go around screaming “Look! Look! Hugh Jackman’s at my party! How cool am I?!”
Apparently, not very cool. You know who’s cool? Deadpool 2. Having the Vanisher played by Brad Pitt and only letting you see him for less than a second. Total boss move.
Anyway, Emma Frost senses what Xavier is up to and tells Shaw in the most emotionless, bored way possible. Shaw shows her his brand spanking new helmet, which allows him to block telepaths from reading his mind. While Xavier and Magneto are on a mission to Russia, Shaw and the rest of the Hell Fire club attack the super secret CIA base and kill most of the staff including the Man in Black.
Shaw tells the young mutants that “There’s a revolution coming, when mankind discovers who we are and what we can do. Each of us will face a choice; Be enslaved, or rise up.”
Fine. My soapbox, Jeeves.
Oh, so here’s a hot take: Everything leading up to, through and away from The Death of Darwin is racist as balls. It’s dodgy as hell that they played the Black Dude Dies First trope completely straight, even dodgier that they hint at a relationship between Darwin and Havok meaning it’s also a smattering of Bury Your Gays, yet dodgier still that they do it after the only other non-white (or blue) character in the team switches sides and it puts a big stinking “Oh-boy” cherry on this sundae of wrongness by doing it in a story that’s supposed to be a frickin’ Civil Rights allegory. And for crying’ out loud, why have the one character Shaw kills be the guy who it has just been established is really, really hard to kill? That’s like having Wolverine killed by a guy made of salami. And it never even pays off! We never get a final confrontation between Havok and Shaw over Darwin’s death, it’s just a plot point to give the kids a personal stake in stopping Shaw and then dropped like a deuce.
Hackery, in short.
And can we take a moment to appreciate that Angel is the absolute worst? Apart from the terrible powers and the fact that I have seen more angelic looking wings smothered in hot sauce. She gets harassed by a few CIA dick-holes and then when Shaw shows up and BRUTALLY MURDERS LIKE TWENTY GUYS IN FRONT OF HER she’s like, “yeah, this guy’s got the right idea”. And she sticks with Shaw even after he incinerates her friend while she watches and then does her damndest to kill the rest of them later in Cuba. She’s like the mutant Squeaky Fromme.
Xavier and Erik return to the base to find it in ruins and that their civil rights allegory is now whiter than a Daz wash and relocates them to his mansion in Westchester to train them for the coming battle with Shaw. This involves training Havok to control his hoola hoops, Mystique getting swoll and just dropping Banshee off increasingly higher stuff for shits and giggles.
I’d make a joke, but seriously. This was education in the sixties.
A couple of important things happen with the characters we actually care about too. Xavier helps Erik discover a lost memory of his mother which helps him find a degree of inner peace which in turn boosts his powers. Over a game of chess, Erik (who the kids have taken to calling “Magneto”) tells Charles that he’s going to kill Shaw. Xavier tells him that revenge won’t bring him peace and Magneto replies “Peace was never an option”.
There’s a lot of that going around, actually, as the mutants anxiously watch the TV as President Kennedy informs the nation that Russian ships are on route to “Cuberr” and that American ships are going to try and stop them and…well, they’re just going to play it by ear after that. You all know how to “duck and cover”? Be grand, sure.
This, of course, is being orchestrated by Shaw who wants to trigger an nuclear war because he thinks that this will wipe out the humans and make mutants more powerful. Hey, do you know what happens to a mutant who’s struck by a nuclear radiation? The same thing that happens to everything else. Shaw’s an idiot.
Also an idiot? Hank McCoy. He’s finished his serum and offers it to Mystique but she turns it down, having bought into Magneto’s whole “Love yourself and fuck tha haters” philosophy. He tries the serum on himself and it cures him of his big useful feet. For five seconds. And then he turns into into a cerulean Wolf Man, making him possibly the most incompetent movie scientist since Doctor Pretorius.
Anyway. Hank’s friends think the fact that’s he’s accidentally permanently disfigured himself is just nifty and they set off for Cuberr in the Black Bird. When Havok asks Hank if he can fly it, Hank responds “Of course I can. I designed it.”
We now get a very fun setpiece where the Hellfire Club and the X-Men play chess with the opposing Russian and American fleets, with Shaw trying to start a shooting war and Xavier trying to stop it. Things come to a head when Magneto yanks Shaw’s subarmine right out of the water and deposits on the sandy, pig-filled beaches of Cuberr. In the submarine, Shaw tells Magneto how proud he is of him and that Erik was only able to reach his full potential because of what he did to him. He also tells him that mutants are the future of the human race. Magneto tells him that…yeah. That’s exactly right. And then he grabs his helmet off him which allows Xavier to freeze Shaw’s mind. And then, Mangeto takes the Reichsmark that he’s held on to all these years, and slooooowly pushes it through Shaw’s skull. While Xaviers is still in his mind. And can feel everything.
Hell of a way to end a partnership.
On the beach, the battle rages on but everyone stops when Magneto emerges and tells them that the King is Dead, Long Live the King. Also, what the hell is up with Fassbender’s accent in this scene? He starts the movie out with this kind of clipped, mittel-European cadence and gets steadily more Irish the eviller he becomes.
Meanwhile, the Americans and the Russians have decided to put their differences aside and kill the freaks. They open fire and Magneto grabs every rocket out of the air and sends them hurtling back to their respective fleets. Xavier desperately tries to talk him out of it, saying that the men on those ships were only “following orders” which is the second last thing you should say to a Holocaust survivor. The first of course being, “Do you want to watch Paul Blart, Mall Cop?” because that is the last thing you should say to anyone.
The day is saved by Moira McTaggart who rolls up packing iron and fires a couple of shots straight at Magneto. The distracts him, causing the missles to miss the ships but he deflects one of the bullets and poor Charles Xavier gets a new spine-hole.
Distraught at what he’s done, Magneto tearfully gathers up the last of the Hellfire club and makes to leave. Raven, who’s decided that Charles’ vision of human mutant relations can never come to pass, decides to go with Magneto. They teleport away.
Both Fassbender and McAvoy (again) are just phenomenal in this scene, but the work that really stick in my mind is McAvoy, struggling desperately to stop from panicking as he repeats over and over “I…I can’t feel my legs…I can’t feel my legs…”
Gives me the shivers.
We flashforward and Xavier, now wheelchair bound, shows Moira around the mansion where he’s going to set up his school for mutants. She promises that she’ll never tell anyone and he says “I know” and they kiss.
Suddenly, Moira is back at the CIA with her memory wiped and no idea of where Charles is and whoah whoah what the fuck? Charlie, if you knew she wasn’t going to tell anyone, why did you wipe her memory? Or did you mean “I know” as in “I know, because I am about to psychically roofie you?”
That is without a doubt the shadiest thing Charles Xavier has ever…okay, it is one of the shadiest…it is definitely in the top fifty most shady things Charles Xavier has done. In a movie. Made post 2010.
She tells her bosses in the CIA that essentially she’s been lobotomised without her consent by a man she considered a close, trusted friend and they’re all “oh, how very like a woman”. And then the whole building shakes as Erik breaks into Emma Frost’s cell to free her. He introduces himself as “Magneto”, and we learn that not even an actor of Michael Fassbender’s calibre can make that name sound anything less than fucking ridiculous.
Like I said, there’s stuff I love and there’s stuff I love not. But, after the last two entries, it’s frickin’ manna from heaven.
Hey, was that Stan Lee?!: That was…not Stan Lee. He’s not in this one. And I kinda needed him to be. Oof.
Department of Duplication Department: One at a time! One at a time! Man, it is crazy in here today. Okay we have new actors playing Magneto, Xavier, Mystique and Beast but they are at least playing the same characters. Ditto the briefly glimpsed cameos from Cyclops and Storm. But then we have a brand spanking new Moira MacTaggart despite her being already introduced in X3 as well as an Emma Frost who can’t be the one we saw in Wolverine Origins.
How worried is Guinan right now?:
Guinan is freaking out. We haven’t eaten gotten to the time travel shenanigans of Days of Future Past and already the timeline between the first five X-Men movies is broken beyond repair. Little wonder, with First Class seeming to go out of its way to erase X3 and Wolverine Origin from canon.
Wait, Magneto is how old?!: Cuban missile crisis was in 1962 which means that Magneto is 27.
Today, mutants are…: Jews and black people. But black people as played by white people.
No stinger, but some cool James Bond-esque credits.
And the audience went:
This movie is:
Next Update: 03 January 2019
NEXT TIME: Ooooohh I’m excited about this. Next time I’m unveiling a brand spanking new regular series. Be sure to check it out, and have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
“x-men’s inherent flaw in its storytelling is that it always has mutants with useful powers telling mutants with actual curses to be proud of their powers
“you should embrace your gifts” says Orgasm Dude, the dude with the power to give anyone an orgasm
“yeah thanks” says Will Explode If He Gets A Boner Man”