The X-Men films have been decidedly hit or miss for most, but I’ve actually enjoyed them all to varying degrees, with the second film, X-Men: United, being my personal favorite. It was in this film that I think director, Bryan Singer, really nailed both the characters and tone of the comic series upon which the films were based. The series sort of went off the rails a bit with Brett Ratner’s underappreciated (at least in my opinion) X-Men 3, while Wolverine: Origins failed to appeal to both audiences and critics. It seemed that, without Singer’s guidance, the once-popular X franchise was mutating into something else entirely, so, with the director’s return to the fold (after sneaking across enemy lines for Superman Returns), as both producer and story scribe for the reboot/prequel, X-Men: First Class, expectations were understandably high. This rousing hybrid of superhero action and swinging sixties espionage flick brought new life to the series thanks to a hip young cast and assured direction from fan-favorite director, Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass), and now comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment.
The film opens with young Erik Lensherr and his family being escorted by Nazi troops to a detention center where they are separated. Erik, at once terrified and enraged, uses his magnetic powers to bring down the gate to the camp before he’s knocked unconscious by his captors while Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) looks on from his window. Schmidt is eager to tap Erik’s abilities but, despite numerous attempts, cannot get the boy to duplicate the display he put on when he was first brought to the camp. Schmidt deduces that Erik’s powers are triggered by extreme duress, and, as a test, has the boy’s mother brought to his office where he then threatens to kill her unless Erik move a simple metal coin across his desk. Erik fails, and Schmidt makes good on his threat, sending the boy into a fit of rage that results in the death of two guards and the utter decimation of Schmidt’s office. Schmidt then embraces the boy, hands him the coin, and promises that they will accomplish great things together.
In a parallel scene, we meet young Charles Xavier at his family’s sprawling Westchester, New York estate. Charles is suddenly awakened and ventures down into the kitchen where he discovers his mother rooting through the fridge. After a brief, probing bit of dialogue, Charles uses his telekinetic abilities to inform this imposter that his real mother wouldn’t so much as set a foot in the kitchen. The charlatan reveals herself to be a young blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven, who is simply hungry and has nowhere else to go. Charles is excited to find another mutant like himself, and promises that, if Raven stays with him, she need never go hungry again.
Flash forward to 1962. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is now a young man with a singular goal in life; to track down the man who killed his mother. Using a piece of ill-gotten Nazi gold, Erik manages to persuade a crooked bank president to give him the last known whereabouts of Dr. Schmidt, who, like many war criminals, has fled to South America. While Erik heads for Argentina in search of Schmidt, the doctor, looking very good for his age, is now operating under the name of Sebastian Shaw, and lording over a group known as The Hellfire Club in Las Vegas – an organization currently under the observation of CIA operative, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). When Moira witnesses Shaw and his cohorts’ mutant powers firsthand, she seeks out the expertise of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in Oxford where he is finishing his thesis on mutation. He and Raven accompany Moira head off Shaw, but arrive just as Erik is launching his own surprise offensive. Shaw, aided by the powerful Emma Frost (January Jones), escapes, but the showdown leads to a partnership between Erik and Charles, and, ultimately, to the formation of the X-Men.
X-Men: First Class is a highly entertaining and surprisingly offbeat superhero flick that makes great use of its nifty period setting. The film is equal parts sci-fi/action romp and cold-war era caper as the newly minted team of mutant heroes attempt to thwart doomsday against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With excellent special effects and a host of cool surprises, it’s the best X-Men film since United. I did, however, have a few issues with the film, most having to do with casting decisions and its adherence to rules of Singer’s X-universe. Personally, I’d have loved to see this story told with the original X-Men from the silver age comics but, being that this is meant to take place in the same universe as Singer’s previous films, old favorites like Cyclops and Iceman (who, in this timeline, have yet to be born) are replaced by the likes of second tier characters like Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) – both of which didn’t appear in the comics until the late ‘60’s, as well as Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a curious choice seeing as how this character made his debut in 2006 (and is completely wasted here). I was also a bit put off by the casting of January Jones as Emma Frost. Yes, Jones is an attractive woman, but, man, she’s just terrible here, and, frankly, I can think of dozens of actresses who’d have been better suited for the role (including the gorgeous and infinitely classier Rosamund Pike, who was, apparently, considered but, for some reason or another, didn’t get the part).
Fox brings X-Men: First Class to Blu-ray in with expectedly X-cellent results. The 2.39:1 1080p transfer is crisp and colorful, with an almost tangible sense of depth and dimension. Fine detail abounds, and is especially noticeable in fabrics and facial features, as well as in the meticulously crafted chic ‘60’s sets (get a load out of the Hellfire Club’s groovy inner-sanctum). The equally impressive 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track resounds with all manner of low end pyrotechnics and crystalline highs, and a liberal dose of immersive environmental effects. This is a very loud mix, but, even at “comfortable” volume, I had no trouble hearing the dialogue or more subtle sound effects.
Extras are abundant and include:
○ Cerebro Mutant Tracker (HD): A sort of Mutant Database with pop-up videos and factoids about pretty much ever mutant ever to grace an X-Men film.
○ Children of the Atom (HD) : A multi-part behind-the-scenes featurette, charting the film from pre-production through post-production, including visual effects techniques and cataloguing “X-Men” transformations through prosthetic make up and costume design. Includes interviews with all of the principal cast and crew, and is about as in-depth a making-of as you’ll see.
○ “X” Marks the Spot: An interactive pop-up feature that offers video nuggets relating to specific moments in the film.
○ Extended and Deleted Scenes (HD)
○ BD-Live Portal with additional Cerebro Mutant Tracker profiles
○ Composer’s Isolated Score
○ Theatrical Trailer (HD)
Also included is a DVD Digital Copy for playback on all of your portable devices.
X-Men: First Class is said to be the first part in what would amount to a new prequel trilogy, and, if that’s the case, I’m very excited about the future (err…past?) of the franchise, especially if the series sticks to the period settings and historical events (imagine the X-Men in Vietnam, or attempting to thwart the assassination of J.F.K?). Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is fantastic, offering reference quality picture and audio quality, and an impressive collection of quality extras making this an easy recommendation for fans of both superhero action flicks and Cold War era capers. Groovy stuff!