The biggest challenge any prequel faces is that it presupposes the audience actually cares about the backstory of the characters and will relish in discovering how they became the people we know. Initially, X-Men: First Class isn’t too concerned about showing us who these characters become, rather, it depicts them as they are. Eventually, the film does move everybody from a state of neutrality to taking up positions on opposite sides of the mutant schism. It’s easily a better movie than X-Men 3 and certainly better than Wolverine. But despite really, really enjoying the hell out of it, I had to wonder—did it all have to happen so fast?
Full spoilers ahead!
To reiterate: this is a solid movie. It’s a solid movie as a superhero movie, it’s a better X-Men film probably half of them, and it works as a regular movie too. The performances from the actors are exceptional, with particular kudos to Jennifer Lawrence for delivering a totally sympathetic version of the shape-shifting Mystique. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are completely believable as the young Professor X and Magneto respectively and their 60s clothes are arguably cooler than most of the stuff Bond wore in the real 60s. (Mad Men, eat your heart out!) Charles and Erik are here to show you how to dress! None of the supporting mutants are bad either, with the exception of Kevin Bacon, who portrays the films main antagonist, Sebastian Shaw. I could go on a tangent and talk about how Kevin Bacon is miscast, how he’s not remotely scary or how everything about the character was generic. But, like Willem Dafoe’s goofy green mask in the 2002 Spider-Man, Kevin Bacon doesn’t really hurt the movie. He does okay with the material, but there’s something about him that just seems flat.
Unlike X-Men 3, or maybe even X-Men 2, this movie actually has a pretty tight plot. Even more importantly, the thematic social commentary that makes the X-Men mythos so impactful is absolutely central in this movie. The phrase “Mutant and Proud” is repeated numerous times both as a battle cry and as an unfulfilled promise. The audience is made painfully aware that society will never really accept mutantkind and that, despite their heroics, they’ll always be persecuted and feared.
It’s been said before that one of the great things about the X-Men is that they’re not heroes per se, but rather, just trying to survive. X-Men: First Class plays with this theme on a personal level, in particular with Mystique’s storyline. Initially, the character is interested in a serum that Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has developed that would enable her to look “normal” while retaining her powers. Beast presents her with this option and the resulting scene ultimately encapsulates the whole film. The desire to fit into society and hide from humanity stems from humanity’s prejudice towards mutants. Mystique and Magneto don’t want to be “closeted,” whereas Xavier sees it as a necessary evil on the road to a larger eventual acceptance of mutantkind. Thematically, this is tricky because the “bad guys” are sort of right, and Xavier is depicted here as being a little bit privileged and biased. He’d prefer it if Mystique stayed looking cute and blonde, whereas Magneto loves her in her natural blue state. This is great stuff and certainly explores the struggles of the mutants more effectively than the previous two X-Men films.
By the end of X-Men: First Class, Xavier is crippled and Magneto is rocking the cape and the helmet. Mystique has joined the “bad guys” and the “good guys” have gone into hiding in Xavier’s mansion. We’re also told that the Cuban Missile Crisis was not only caused by “bad” mutants, but that the good mutants we all love prevented it from escalating. In fact, Magneto really gets to be the hero of the final climactic scenes of the movie. He is the one who stops the bad guy, and he is the one who saves the mutants from the bombs and missiles that have been turned on them by the humans. In some ways, if we weren’t given scenes of Magneto torturing people or making sweeping generalizations about being better than everyone, we might actually consider him the hero and Xavier sort of a pansy appeaser. But Xavier is likable, too, and when a stray bullet hits him in the spine at the end of these scenes, you really feel for both him and Magneto. The love lost between these two guys is real and much better handled than say, Revenge of the Sith.
Of course, throughout the film these people don’t go by their famous X-Men monikers. Instead, they’re Charles and Erik. In fact, one of the closing scenes is Erik literally telling someone he prefers going by Magneto now. This is where the purpose of the movie confused me. Of course it’s an origin story, and of course a big payoff is for us to see Erik in the cape and Charles in the wheelchair. But so soon? Why? These guys could have had a whole second movie with Charles and Erik palling around, collecting mutants, and disagreeing over ethics. The chemistry between the actors is there, and having them be young, sexy, and NOT caricatures of the people we know would help us be more excited when they did become those people.
In short, it all happens too fast. Why reboot or re-launch a series if you’re just going to bring it right up to the point everyone’s familiar with already? Right now, I sort of know how the rest of the story goes because I’ve seen the other X-Men movies. Though this movie specifically contradicts the canon of the third film, it actually seems to really try to be a true prequel to at least the first two movies. (And surprisingly a kind of mid-quel to Wolverine) So they’re not pulling a J.J. Abrams here. This isn’t an alternate dimension. We’re lead to believe these are young versions of Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen and so forth.
A sequel to this prequel will of course be made, which is really confusing to me. Because the battle lines between Magneto and Xavier have been drawn, the tension of a sequel to this movie will be exactly the same tension as the existing films. Will the next one be in the 70s? Will it show us how they got Storm and Cyclops? (A very young girl looking very much like Storm is briefly seen when Xavier is messing around with Cerebro.) But if the next X-Men movie is just more “here’s some more stuff that happened to the X-Men when they were young” then it will enter into territory the other films have already covered.
X-Men: First Class was a risky entry into a troubled film series that succeeded in being good in spite of itself. Had it held off and not depicted Magneto and Xavier’s roles so starkly at the end, I might be excited for a sequel. But as it stands, I worry sequels to this movie will only be mutated and deformed versions of this one. And not the pretty kind.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. His mutant power is blogging.