Let me first throw out there that in my most humble opinion, Bryan Singer completely lacks any creative talent. THE USUAL SUSPECTS you say? Thank Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter who wrote the film. APT PUPIL? It was only good because it was based on a great Stephen King short story. X-MEN 2? Again, it was all thanks to the screenplay, which was written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter. Bryan Singer’s success has completely been due to strong screenplays and source materials that have made those films possible. Singer doesn’t bring any aesthetic talent as a director or at least he hasn’t displayed a unique style that has made me notice him the way I would Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, or James Cameron. We now come to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which marks Singer’s return to the X-MEN universe after he left it to helm the disappointing SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006. However, instead of directing, he has opted to produce this latest X-installment and instead we have one of the most exciting (and candid) directors working today behind the camera, Matthew Vaughn (he made one of my favorite films of 2010, KICK-ASS).

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS takes us back to the beginning of the X-Men and how it all started. The film is mostly set in the early 1960’s, during the Kennedy Administration. The film starts out with parallel storylines, one following Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the other Erik Lensherr, who will eventually be known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The movie begins just like the first X-MEN film, in 1944 in a concentration camp in Poland where a young Lensherr and his parents are separated and the anguish of losing his parents causes Lensherr to bend a metal gate. In the meantime, we are taken to Westchester County, NY, where a young Charles Xavier meets a shape-shifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who has broken into his parents’ house to look for food. We fast-forward to 1962 where we find Lensherr tracking down former Nazi officers to avenge the killing of his parents. At the same time, Charles Xavier has just graduated from Oxford University and he’s written a thesis about the mutant gene. This attracts the attention of the CIA, one of whose agents, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) has been tracking the activities of the Hellfire Club. The Hellfire Club is an organization run by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (January Jones) and it is attempting to start World War III between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Shaw also happens to be the man who killed Lensherr’s mother in the concentration camp. The CIA recruits the services of Xavier and he eventually hooks up with Lensherr. The two of them go out and find other mutants and together they form the X-Men.

During its 2 hours and 20 minutes running time, a hell of a lot happens during X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. If you’re the sort of person who normally has to pee during a movie, then I suggest you not drink anything because you will miss a key part of the story. Although it’s a long movie, it’s a tightly structured and concise plot that doesn’t waste a single frame in telling its story. Each scene moves the story forward and given the fact that Matthew Vaughn only had 10 months to shoot this picture, the screenwriters and editor deserve to be commended for putting this movie together with the little time they had.

At the same time, the drawbacks to only having 10 months to make this film are clearly evident. I don’t understand why 20th Century Fox felt like it had to release X-MEN: FIRST CLASS this year, but for whatever reason (I suspect it may have partly been due to contractual obligations with Marvel), it got made in a very short amount of time. Compounding the problem is the ambitious scope of the story, which involves the Cuban Missile Crisis, parallel storylines of two major characters, CIA secret spy shit, and the introduction of a plethora of heroes and villains. I certainly enjoyed what I saw and I can see the resemblance to CASINO ROYALE as some critics have remarked. However, I also felt that with more time, the movie could have been finessed to have become something great. Vaughn clearly wanted to tell an epic story, but due to the little time he was given, he seemed to have opted into giving us a summary of that story rather than a fleshed-out expanded version of it. The entire movie seems comprised of “best of” moments from sequences. Consequently, the formation and training of the X-Men, Erik and Charles’ relationship, and the political sub-plot involving the CIA, the U.S. military, the Soviets, and the Hellfire Club felt rushed. Acts II and III lacks any real momentum and you don’t get a sense of the high stakes that are involved between the Americans and the Soviets if they go to war. Most disappointing are the climax and resolution, which are fortunately not as lame as the Statute of Liberty sequence in Act III of X-MEN, but it completely fails to generate the grandiose, all-hell-is-about-to-break-loose mood that it should have. Again, with more time, I think X-MEN: FIRST CLASS could have been further developed to have turned into an instant classic, but in its present form, it falls just short of that.

As to what works in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the casting for this movie is downright superb. I would have never thought that anyone could have matched the formidable Ian McKellen in filling the role of Magneto. Magneto is a great character because he’s not like your typical supervillain by being completely malicious. He isn’t motivated by pure greed or the urge to destroy mankind just for the hell of it. He believes in the superiority of mutants over humans, which stems in part from his tragic childhood at the hands of the Nazi. Ironically, Magneto’s views of the hierarchy between mutants and humans is the same as what the Nazis believed between the white race and the Jews. Michael Fassbender does an awesome job in portraying the character and he, along with Kevin Bacon, easily turn in the best performances of the movie. There has been talk in the past of a Magneto solo film and after seeing Fassbender play the character, I would not mind seeing that film get made. Although it sucks for Kevin Bacon to be acting more frequently these days because his fortune got squandered by Bernie Madoff, its always a pleasure to see him onscreen. Even when he’s starred in shitty films (which are many), it can never be said that Bacon didn’t deliver a good performance. Bacon is perfect as Sebastian Shaw. As terrible and cold as he is, Bacon manages to infuse the character with a certain degree of likeability. What’s more, Bacon doesn’t overplay the character’s evil side. In the hands of a lesser actor, that could have easily resulted, especially when you consider that Shaw’s goal is to cause World War III, a decidedly Dr. Evil thing to do.

Not to lessen his contribution, James McAvoy also turns in a commendable performance as Professor Charles Xavier. McAvoy skillfully combines Professor X’s brashness, wisdom, and perceptiveness that gives us a glimpse of the man the character will one day be. McAvoy is perfectly cast to play the role, but more importantly, he does a fine job in bringing some of Patrick Stewart’s interpretation to the character as well.

As for the rest of the cast, with the exception of Beast, I was a bit disappointed, but fortunately not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the movie. Part of the problem is the choice of characters to form the X-Men team and the other villains. For example, I was never a fan of Mystique from the first X-MEN film and I found her inclusion in this movie to be a nod to the fans of that film. Otherwise, she should not have been a part of the original X-Men team. I was hoping to have seen more of the major characters from the comic book such as Nightcrawler, Iceman, and Colossus to name a few. The choice of villains was also disappointing. I have always liked Emma Frost, but I’m not much of a fan of her recent reinvention in the comic books as someone who can turn into crystal. However, by far the most underdeveloped characters in the entire film are Angel, Azazel, and Riptide. Their characters are one-dimensional and lame. I was especially disappointed by Azazel, who comes off as nothing more than a red copy of Nightcrawler. Of all the villains in the X-Men universe, there must have surely been much more enticing characters to include.

One thing I really enjoyed about X-MEN: FIRST CLASS was the 60’s look of the film. Matthew Vaughn seems to have taken great care to recreate the mood and look of the 60s. Even the actors, for the most part, seem to have gotten rid of their modern day mannerisms in order to fit the time period. Particular scenes in the film especially capture the 60s, such as the inside of Sebastian Shaw’s submarine, the Pentagon war room, and strangely enough, the inside of a parking garage (you have to see it to know what I mean). The visual effects are decent, but again, I think that with some more finesse, the effects could have been far better. As they are now, they look like they weren’t 100% finished.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS isn’t perfect, but it’s a better effort than X-MEN and it’s far better than X-MEN 3 and the horrendous WOLVERINE. It’s a pleasing film that brings the franchise back on track. I didn’t like this as much as the critics, but because I have seen what Matthew Vaughn can do when he’s at the peak of his game, I would love to see him make a sequel to this film and to be given all the time in the world to do it. Vaughn has hinted at what he would like to do for the sequel and it sounds pretty awesome.

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