It was 2004. Bryan Singer had successfully brought the superhero movie in the 21st Century with the excellent X-Men, and the even better X2. In moving away from the universally derided cheese of Batman and Robin, he created a darker, more human template for the genre. Something series like Spiderman and Batman were only too happy to follow in their forays onto the big screen.
Singer had already laid the groundwork for X-Men 3, with his ending to X2, promising to bring one of the most famous arcs from the comics, Jean Grey’s transformation into The Dark Phoenix to a new modern audience.
Then Singer left Marvel’s X-Men 3 to join DC Comic’s Superman Returns. To put that move into context, it’s much like Wayne Rooney leaving Manchester United to join arch-rivals Liverpool; or Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona to join Real Madrid; or The Pope deciding to become a Protestant…
Perhaps that last one is pushing things a little far. However, the fact remains the two biggest publishers of comics are arch-rivals. DC’s roster of characters include Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; Marvel’s Spiderman, Iron Man, and X-Men. For Singer to leave the empire he had helped build to try and pull the same trick for DC was a big deal, and Marvel were left with a guaranteed money-spinner in X-Men 3, but no one to direct it.
Initially they hired Matthew Vaughn, a bold move, given he had only directed the solid, if not spectacular Layer Cake up until this point. However, he pulled out weeks before production was due to start, citing family reasons. Once again Marvel were left in a panic, and they hired Brett Ratner, best known for directing the Rush Hour movies.
X-Men: The Last Stand, while not a disaster, failed to have any of the emotional depth of Singer’s films. Its set prices and events were designed primarily to make the audience gasp, as opposed to think.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine followed, and received even worse reviews from critics and fans alike.
Jump forward to 2009, and Singer was asked to come back and direct a prequel to the X-Men trilogy called X-Men: First Class. Having developed the story, he once again had to drop out to work on another movie, and once again Matthew Vaughn was hired as his replacement This time Vaughn stayed the course, and finally got to bring his vision of Magneto and Professor X to the big screen, six years after he was first asked to do the job.
So was it worth the wait?
Well yes, it was actually. X-Men: First Class is tonally very similar to Singer’s films X-Men and X2, however with enough of its own identity and vision to warrant such a project.
Vaughn, like Singer, understood that the key to understanding what makes X-Men so watchable is the relationship between Professor X (think Martin Luther King) and Magneto (think Malcolm X). Both want rights for ‘mutants’, or those whose unique genetic mutations have given them superpowers.
Of course, both governments and ordinary people are none too happy about certain people having such extraordinary powers, and the conflict that exists in X-Men: First Class is between those who believe these ordinary people can eventually be won around, and those who believe that the mutants need to stand up for themselves because no one else will.
Set in the 1960s, we see Professor X and Magneto as young men coping with their own abilities, and then trying to track down as many other mutants as possible. However, with the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the secretive Hellfire Club determined to start a nuclear war, it’s up to Magneto and Professor X to join forces to stop the destruction of the entire planet.
For me, the joy of seeing a movie like this is seeing the strong themes of the comic book treated with such respect. X-Men has always been about the way we treat those who are different, mutants acting as an allegory for any minority that exists in our society.
Singer used people’s reactions to homosexuality in his films, with a parent of a mutant asking her teenage son “Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?” Similar parallels are made in First Class with a mutant responding to a human’s surprise at his superpowers with “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.”
However, the strength of the series goes beyond one single issue like this to something much broader. In the film we see both Beast and Mystique constantly battling with the way their genetic makeup means they will never look like ‘normal’ people. Is this something they should take pride in? Or is there anything wrong with wanting to look like everyone else, given the chance?
It is the types of arguments both Beast and Mystique; as well as Professor X and Magneto are constantly having that makes X-Men: First Class such an enjoyable film to watch.
Like X-Men, and X2, and very much unlike X-Men: The Last Stand I believe the film works because Vaughn understands that the plot should always be slave to such strong themes. So while the destination Vaughn takes us towards is entirely predictable (and purposefully so), the journey he takes us on to get there is so rewarding it doesn’t really matter.