X-Men First Class

X-Men First Class

Set in the comic-books’ native Kennedy era, Matthew Vaughn’s latest entry in the knotty X-Men series is clean, cool and seemingly imperishable, says Kim Newman

from our August 2011 issue

X-Men First Class
US 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
With James McAvoy, Laurence Belcher, Michael Fassbender, Bill Milner, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
132 mins | Cert 12A


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

A Polish concentration camp, 1944. Scientist Klaus Schmidt murders the mother of young mutant Erik Lehnsherr to prompt him to use his magnetic powers.

In Westchester, New York, mutant telepath Charles Xavier and shapeshifter Raven Darkholme meet, each discovering that they are not a unique species. In 1962, Erik is a Nazi-hunter on the trail of Schmidt, who now calls himself Sebastian Shaw. A powerful mutant, Shaw gathers others – telepath Emma Frost, demonic-seeming Azazel and wind-manipulating Riptide – into a faction who plot to bring about World War III, wiping out humanity so that mutants can prosper. Xavier, now a geneticist, is approached by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, who is aware of Shaw’s activities, to consult on mutant issues. While spying on Shaw, Xavier meets Erik, and the two become friends. With the support of a covert government agency which already employs agile genius Hank McCoy, Xavier and Erik recruit young mutants Angel, Sean Cassidy, Alex Summers and Darwin.

Shaw attacks the government facility, killing Darwin and persuading Angel to defect. Xavier relocates the team to his own house and trains them in the use of their powers. McCoy synthesises a serum from Raven’s blood in the hope of normalising their appearances, but transforms himself into more bestial form. Raven, influenced by Erik, overcomes her reluctance to appear in her inhuman shape. Shaw manipulates America and Russia into a nuclear face-off near Cuba, prompting Xavier’s team to intervene. Erik defeats and kills Shaw, but the superpowers turn their missiles on the mutants. Erik holds the weapons off; Moira and Xavier intervene when he tries to turn them back on the American and Russian fleets. Erik deflects a bullet, which hits Xavier in the spine, crippling him.

Erik (now calling himself Magneto) takes over Shaw’s militant mutant faction, persuading Raven (now Mystique) to join him. Xavier wipes Moira’s knowledge of his special school from her mind. No longer government agents (G-Men), his pupils become X-Men.


Comic-book characters always carry trace elements of the times in which they were created: Clark Kent is named for Clark Gable, the manliest screen idol of 1938, and Wonder Woman has basically been dressing like a 1941 pin-up for 70 years. Mostly created in the 1960s, Marvel’s flagship characters embody a Kennedy-era New Look that no amount of up-to-the-minute gloss – a genetically engineered rather than radioactive spider, malfunctioning lab equipment rather than a gamma bomb test – can cover. For reasons arising from the way the X-Men film franchise has developed, this is the first Marvel movie set in the period when the characters were created, and thus able to embrace the Rat Pack cool that was part of their original charm.

X-Men First Class

Following 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this has to fit in with the continuity established in the three movies pitting Patrick Stewart’s Xavier against Ian McKellen’s Magneto, to the extent of recreating the opening sequence (down to the reuse of a Michael Kamen music cue) of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and working in significant, imaginative cameos for key actors from the made-earlier-but-set-later films. In the struggle to tie things together, some strands are tangled: it’s hard to reconcile the Emma Frost played here by an icy January Jones in Vegas showgirl outfits with the one seen in the Wolverine movie – though we do get answers to questions few have thought to ask, such as where does Magneto’s helmet come from, and who came up with the silly codenames business in the first place?

Director Matthew Vaughn, returning to the fold after abandoning X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) to Brett Ratner in pre-production, takes from Singer the polarity between assimilationist Xavier and separatist Magneto as a spine around which many, many other characters (some of whom get only a few moments to sparkle) have to fit. Even this episode’s Big Bad, Kevin Bacon’s semi-immortal megalomaniac, has less weight than Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr, who evolves from rogue Nazi killer into the Malcolm X of mutantkind, accepting his new Magneto identity as he turns up in Jack Kirby’s original 1963 costume design in the coda. Given that Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique was elevated to major player in a thread across the first trilogy, it’s apt that Jennifer Lawrence gets such meat as a younger version of the character here. She carries the emotional content of a film that risks being cool in the sense of distant as well as that of casually awesome.

Abjuring the ADD overload of much current action cinema, the film is period-apt in its clean lines and dovetailing of subplots, with everyone converging on Cuba for a secret history of the missile crisis. This seems like the foundation for a saga that could profitably be continued, with four decades’ worth of real-world history and comics continuity to be scrambled before it has to join up with the ‘near future’ of Singer’s 2000 movie.

See also

Thor reviewed by Kim Newman (May 2011)

The Green Hornet sells out!: Kim Newman tracks the masked crusader’s journey from radio days to 21st-century big-screen vacuity (January 2011)

From strip to screen: Guillaume Gendron charts the fortunes of two generations of French comic-strip mavericks at the movies (August 2010)

The Informant! reviewed by Michael Atkinson (December 2009)

Hellboy reviewed by Kim Newman (September 2004)

Hulk reviewed by Rob White (August 2003)

X-Men 2 reviewed by Kim Newman (June 2003)

Spiderman reviewed by Kim Newman (July 2002)

X-Men reviewed by José Arroyo (September 2000)

Last Updated: 10 May 2012