X-Men: First Class (2011) is almost universally lauded as a great X-Men film by critics and audiences. It re-energized the moribund X-Men franchise from the horror of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), brought aboard several new mutants and star actors and revealed the origins of Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr and Raven Darkholme. Despite this critical esteem however, there are some major flaws in the film ranging from basic storytelling failures to tonal range issues to subplot over exuberance. I believe that a large part of the goodwill bestowed on the film is due to the poor quality of its predecessors (and they really were terrible) and not on the actual quality of the storytelling presented here, which I believe to be subpar at best. Here is how X-Men: First Class fails to deliver and some details into the story that should have been.
- Trying to Accomplish Too Much Too Fast
The concept of the film is great. The formation of the X-Men, starting with a young Charles Xavier and a young Erik Lehnsherr, set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the film were indeed just this concept, the movie could have really succeeded as a character study between two men and their contrasting views on human nature. Instead, the film attempts to fill in nearly six subplots not directly tied to this natural character bond, including a relationship between Beast and Mystique, the Hellfire Club, interactions with the CIA, a familial bond between Charles and Mystique, Erik hunting Nazis and trying to avenge his mother’s death, and a whole crew of new mutants getting to know each other. When you toss in this many different subplots into a two-hour feature, things start to become muddled, and you lose the focus of what should be the main plot: the relationship of Charles and Erik and how their friendship evolves. Not that these plots can not be insinuated over the course of the film, but they take up so much screentime that Charles and Erik do not even meet until nearly 40 minutes into the film. Setting their relationship front and center would have given the film a strong foothold.
- An Overabundance of Sebastian Shaw
Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw is the principal point of story action, and his agenda of setting the United States and the Soviet Union on a course for war takes over the film. This keeps the viewer from truly emotionally engaging with Charles and Erik since they don’t act as true protagonists. They are always reacting to Shaw and his actions instead of pursuing their own desires. With Shaw driving the story, the film essentially becomes his story rather than Charles and Erik and pulls focus off of them. Tying into this point, Bacon’s Shaw is incredibly one-dimensional, a less empathetic Magneto that does not add anything in terms of dynamism.
- Tone Deaf
The tone of the film is all over the place. At one moment, we could be watching brutal Nazi concentration camps, the next boring political dialogue in the CIA. We go from comically maniacal villain plans to abrupt murders of government agents. We go from comical montages of mutants learning their powers to James Bond-esque infiltrations intro Russia. With so many story elements pulling us in different directions tonally, the result is a general feeling of emotional mush, the funny not being funny, suspenseful not being suspenseful and horrific being over the top.
- A Lack of Visual Style
Filmmaking is known for the visual style of its directors and production designers, highlighting the use of camera angles and shot designs to effectively show a story rather than just film a script. Director Matthew Vaughn does not really seem to have a visual style to the film.
Almost all shots are shot in the same balance of lighting, nothing too dark, no shadows really illuminated. Shots are not used to highlight strength or unease or tension within a scene, just showing the characters, their dialogue and then continuing on. Indeed, at many times it feels like sitcom feeling, letting the actors dictate the scene rather than the direction. A stronger visual style would help further show the story rather than just have it carry on from beat to beat without emotion as it does.
How could the story have been then? The film makes mention of the world just beginning to learn about mutation, but this point could serve as the basis of action for the story.
In the beginning, Charles does not understand the voices in his head, the strange feelings of the burgeoning of his powers. As he grows up, he finds Raven, frightened and alone, and we see (see, not told) her abused by people who do not understand her. Seeing their similarities, Charles takes her in, and raises her as kin. He delves into research for both of them (the film glosses over this detail, but it is vital to show us how Xavier became Xavier) and learns about mutation. All the while, he learns to master his own powers, challenging himself to go even farther with his ability and teaching Raven to do the same. At the same time, he offers her a family relationship which she did not have before.
Meanwhile, Erik’s backstory is pretty well set in the film and not much needs to be changed. Trapped in a Nazi concentration camp, he witnesses the death of his family. As his powers emerge, he fails to escape, always living in the shadow of death. After the war, anger overwhelms him, and he witnesses more devastation at the hands of the Soviets. His anger allows him to channel his powers and exact vengeance. He hunts down Nazis, however he believes that he is the only one with powers, a messenger of God, giving him a great ego.
The two men meet by circumstance. In the comics, they meet in Israel, and there is no reason for that not to work in film as well with all kinds of Biblical and symbolic representation inherent. Charles is glad to meet another with gifts after so long, knowing that more of their kind is out there, and Erik sees himself as part of some master solution, an emissary of a race of beings who will finally bring the world stability.
The two men discuss mutation, and the world as they see it. Charles tries to break Erik’s wall of hatred, but Erik shows Charles the evil of the world through mind readings. Charles however, perseveres, and Erik agrees to help Charles with his studies.
They resolve to provide a haven for mutants, each understanding that the world is not ready to accept them, and in conjunction, build Cerebro with Raven’s help. Through all of this, Raven is intrigued by Erik, attracted to him both physically and mentally.
With Cerebro, Xavier is able to find several mutants (as he does in the film) and bring them to his old mansion. The difference here is that each of the mutants he finds is trapped in some form or another (through prejudice, fear or some other societal constraint) because of prejudice, and their fears over their own powers. Charles and Erik are then able to help them and start the X-Men.
You can tell that the main genesis of the plot for the most part is present in how I see the film. The story just becomes much stronger when Shaw is taken out of the story arc and replaced by Charles and Erik’s own actions. They drive the plot and hints of the subplots can then take their rightful places. Raven can have a fling with Beast who, despite Charles’ insistence on accepting himself, messes with his DNA and turns himself blue, Erik and Charles can mentor a young group of mutants with diverse powers and serve as a kind of parental relationship to them and the Hellfire Club can emerge as an antagonist (perhaps through a mystery of Charles sensing a group of evil mutants who plan to destroy the world and needing to discover who they are, thus sending the X-Men out on their first journey).
After the X-Men fail at this first mission, being defeated by the Hellfire Club, Charles and Erik’s relationship is put to the test. Erik blames their failure on Charles’ unwillingness to destroy his enemies while Charles blames Erik’s rash behavior getting them in trouble. While the two spar, the Hellfire Club prepares to unleash their plan in Cuba to destroy the world. They rush to stop them.
The conclusion would then feature the team of ragtag mutants up against the Club (as it does in the film). The X-Men defeat the Hellfire Club but only because Magneto gives in to his hatred and murders Shaw, accidentally paralyzing Charles in the process. Xavier and Lehnsherr split as they do in the film, the X-Men splitting with them, each drawn to different philosophies.
You can tell that a lot of this is already in the film, it just needed to be brought to the forefront. With just a few changes, the film could have been a great X-Men experience, but because of some design flaws, remains just a so-so feature.