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Ciaran says

James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender do the unthinkable and follow their predecessors incredibly well, giving Magneto his just desserts as one of the best villains of all time.

Darren says

I didn’t expect to enjoy this, but it is a great exploration of the origins of the team and succeeds in providing a fantastic vehicle for Fassbender to shine as a focal point. Some of the other characters seem superfluous (white queen, Angel) but still well crafted.

Tym says

For me this is an anachronism clusterfunk, but Fassbender is always great.

History

When your franchise flunks, you do your lessons again.

X-Men 3 had meant to round out a trilogy but lost its way spectacularly. Since X-Men and Spider-Man had esentially created the modern great superhero film, their failed third acts were an ominous danger sign. (Lesson: keep the good creators in control, keep the greedy studio out of it.) Luckily, Bryan Singer returned to produce this do-over with director Matthew Vaughn. By going back to the early ’60s origins of the X-Men, they were in the odd position of launching a sequel trilogy that begins with a reboot which is actually a prequel. It seems like too much to take on and collective breaths were held.

The general concensus is that they passed the test/bypassed the testiness just fine. First Class is a breezy film clearly based on the early James Bond mode, carried on the charm of James McAvoy and anchored by the gravity of Michael Fassbender. Its core is the friendship and falling out between Xavier and Magneto that the other films were built on. McAvoy brings a sense of fun to Xavier and the series, while Fassbender elicits empathy with the pain that misguides Magneto’s vendetta.

The film also debuts fan favorites from across the years, like Emma Frost, Banshee, and Havok. But this brings up a quiet, inevitable problem in the X-films -and in all screen adaptions- regarding compression and continuity. Comics span decades and revamp themselves continually. Films have to make the hard choices of how to compress and cherry-pick the characters and events for the mass audience. With The X-Men (2000), Singer did an admirable job of distilling a basic team and entry point that engaged the viewer. The downside is that core connections and histories may have been lost in the simpler translation. Over time, the X-films (including the Wolverine spin-offs) began mix-and-matching characters across time and out of context in ways that started to trip up its ability to tell certain key stories. (Similarly, the clusterfunk of style anachronisms clearly beyond 1962 in this film are as haphazard as an Austin Powers flick.)

In the actual comics, the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted in 1963 as an ensemble quintet: Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Ice Man. a few carried over into a cosmopolitain New X-Men in 1975 that settled into the core modern team: Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Kitty Pride. Essentially this film is recalling the original team, but it’s forced to do so with different characters, based on all of those hard choices of composite and conflation made before. Sometimes your piecemeal worldbuilding leads you into cul-de sacs of contradiction. In short, we get a first class of mutants who aren’t the original first class at all, a year early.

The film climaxes with the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the moment in history in which the actual world really did almost end. The island showdown in the fine third act is the highpoint, as riveting and poignant as any moment in the series. Comic readers may recognize the ghosts of the original Doom Patrol here: Marvel’s X-Men were first inspired by that DC outsider team and its paraplegic leader, and their legendary final showdown happened similarly on an island in 1967. The film lamentably bypasses the Civil Rights movement, the reality that truly inspired the meaning of the X-Men and still guides its relevancy. Low marks for that, but high marks in general for a film that took the mutants from an uncertain past into a new future.

X-Men V: Days of Future Past