100 Film Favorites – #69: X-Men: First Class
(Matthew Vaughn, 2011)
Sometimes the conditions under which you experience a film for the first time can greatly influence your opinion of that film. I first watched this movie while eating complimentary barbecue chicken, so I like it a lot.
It was the summer of 2011, and I was staying in Williamsburg, taking classes and working at the local Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. One weekend night, I journeyed to the Movie Tavern to see today’s film selection with several members of PMA who were also in town. Ah, the Movie Tavern…how I miss their $6 tickets. Halfway through the film, a waitress came to our row with a tray of food, and asked us whether we’d ordered the barbecue sampler platter (specifically, the “game day platter“).
We said no.
She asked if we wanted it anyway.
We said yes.
$6 movie tickets with free cheese fries, chicken wings, and bacon burger sliders is as powerful a day-saving combination as any superhero team.
But now to the film itself. X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the previous entries in the X-Men film series, and takes a look at the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, the young men who would become Professor X and Magneto, as they establish a school for young mutants and form a team of superhuman “X-Men.”
There are several reasons why First Class stands out from the crowd of summer blockbuster superhero flicks. First, the period. The film is set primarily in the early 1960s. Superheroics against a Cold War backdrop are always cool, as Watchmen can attest. Actually, I might have featured the film version of Watchmen on this list…but no one gave me free barbecue at the Watchmen screening. And I was even wearing a Rorschach costume. What a rip-off.
At any rate, the period setting lets the film play with iconic moments in U.S. history (bet you didn’t know that the reason the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t explode into a “hot” war was because the X-Men were there, huh?), and the idea of the main villain using the possibility of nuclear war to destroy both sides of the human conflict, leaving only mutants behind, puts a new angle on the “normal” / mutant conflict explored in the series.
One area in which this film really shines is its relatively deep characterization. While some of the secondary characters, particularly among the class of “gifted youngsters” recruited by Xavier and Lensherr, receive short shrift, all the main players are given time to reveal and develop their characters. This is most evident in the relationship between Charles and Erik. The two powerful young mutants connect on a deep level, and over the course of the film their differing goals lead them from friendship to enmity, though they always share a great mutual respect. The scene in which Charles encourages Erik to rotate a colossal satellite dish with his magnetic powers by channeling positive emotions in addition to the anger which had previously fueled his abilities is a very poignant (albeit more than a little homo-erotic) scene. In addition to this focus on the men who would come to lead the two factions of the mutant struggle throughout the X-Men series, the film explores the young lives of Beast and Mystique, providing more insight into their characters than previously shown.
Finally – DAT MONTAGE. The training montage in this movie, in which Xavier and Lensherr hone their new recruits into fighting form, is among the best instances of the form I’ve seen (for the record, my favorite training montage of all time is the one from Rocky IV, but this is a close second). Much of the sequence’s success spawns from its creative editing. Multiple events are shown happening at once, in “windows” of varying sizes within the frame. We see each of the recruits transition from an amateur to a skilled fighter in a brief amount of screentime, with the scene remaining compelling and visually engaging throughout.
X-Men: First Class is a comic-book movie with heart, a nifty period backdrop, and a degree of characterization rarely seen in a film with such a large ensemble cast. But really what I care about is the chicken wings. Filmmakers eager for a favorable review, now you know what to have on hand at your premiere.