While I had collected comic books for some time before I first encountered the X-Men, they have remained by far my most profound comic book experience. I remember my first glimpse of these literally life-altering characters, on an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends one Saturday morning, and buzzing with excitement for the rest of the morning. I promptly picked up the most recent issue on my next outing to comic book shelves, and still remember that issue today, as Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, and Ariel took on Mystique in a carnival funhouse. I was hooked, and have remained so ever since.
I heard mixed reviews about this weekend’s opening of X-Men: First Class before I could carve out time to go to the theatre myself, both this somewhat flattering review from the New York Times, and this harsh, if somewhat hollow, review from the blogosphere. I went in open to the possibilities, and hoping that the X-Men would find the phenomenal cinematic interpretation that Thor recently experienced. You see, prior to this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie was X2.
And, after this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie will still be X2. X-Men: First Class was, sadly, not first class.
The movie continues the “origin” trend that has become popular in cinematic comic book adaptations over the last few years (and apparently is continuing with their comic book predecessors, as well). We pick up here with Magneto’s tragic childhood in a Nazi prison camp, and follow his later meeting with Charles Xavier as they become allied with the U.S government to defeat a plot by the Hellfire Club, introduced well in this movie, who are behind the Cuban Missile Crisis in this version of history. What follows is an unpredictable mesh of mutant history with international intrigue as Xavier forms the first group of X-Men to prevent nuclear annihilation.
The problem is the discontinuity with the classic X-Men story arc. This first becomes apparent as we discover that Professor X has adopted Mystique as his sister, and that the two have grown up together (all together, now: “What the….???”). More overtly, however, this “first class” of X-Men is, in fact, not the original group of X-Men from Marvel’s history, which was comprised of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, the Angel, and the Beast. Nowhere, in fact, have we seen this original group together as such in the X-Men movie adaptations. This is particularly unfortunate here, because the costume designers for First Class have captured the original X-Men uniforms with superb skill. To find these costumes on a disparate re-casting of the first group of X-Men (only the Beast has continuity) is disappointing at the highest level. The inconsistencies don’t stop, there, however: instead of Cyclops, we see his brother, Havok (as a teen, like most of the others in the group), who has inexplicably been in prison. Moira MacTaggert, who rightly plays an extremely influential role in the film, is not only a CIA operative instead of a geneticist, but also American instead of Scottish. That’s not just odd, but downright wrong.
These examples highlight the larger issue plaguing the X-Men film adaptations, and that is the fragmentation of the history of the characters. Because the original X-Men film introduced the most beloved of the characters instead of the actual first team of characters, others have been introduced at incorrect stages of life in the story arcs (for example, Iceman and Rogue). First Class maintains some continuity with the other films (such as explaining how the Beast works for the government and has known Xavier for some time at his first appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand). However, the discrepancies far outweigh the continuities, even with the other films (how, exactly, does this work with the discovery of Emma Frost and Cyclops at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?), because these characters were simply not intended to meld together in the way that the screenwriters attempt here.
The film does do some things right, though, and one of those is visuals. Emma Frost and Banshee, particularly, are extremely accurate visually, and Sebastian Shaw is an excellent and critical inclusion, as the Hellfire Club are the villains here. In fact, the entire cast of actors are extremely attractive people, which helps the movie tremendously. Its just too bad that the same amount of care couldn’t have gone into the writing.
Another positive contribution of this film to the X-Men cinematic canon is that this is the first time the audience understands Magneto, the first time we find ourselves thinking that we can sympathize with how he gets to where he is…similar to how we sympathize with Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to the Dark Side in Star Wars, Episode III.
Overall, however, First Class, while providing great visuals and its share of good laughs, further diminishes the legitimacy of X-Men film adaptations. Those of us for whom the X-Men hold a particularly special place in Marvel’s comic book mythos find it tragically true that even the best of these films were launched with deep difficulties and have grown unmanageable in the end…or, in this case, the beginning. The X-Men movie franchise should either be declared dead, or re-booted entirely.
As for seeing First Class on the big screen, I wouldn’t waste the money from your budget. Toss this one into your Netflix cue, instead.