The rise of streaming has made it more difficult for films to fade away. They don’t die, they simply hang around in everyone’s Netflix watchlist. That’s why it’s a bit disconcerting that X-Men: First Class (2011) is now a whole decade old. It was (and still is) a masterclass in how to freshen up a franchise. In honour of the film’s 10th-anniversary, it’s time for a look at how the film got everything right, only for the series to eventually get everything wrong.
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Mutants on the big screen
Thanks to the comics and the 1990’s cartoon, the decision to launch a big budget X-Men film franchise was a case of… well, duh. 2000’s X-Men ditched the yellow spandex, along with the drag queen-esque big hair of the female characters, and changed Wolverine from a 5’3” gruff Canadian into Hugh Jackman. Director Bryan Singer delivered a solid effort, followed by an excellent effort (2003’s X2, also from Singer), followed by the drowsiness of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which cast Kelsey Grammer as Beast (yeah, Frasier, claw those people’s faces off), and was directed by the problematic Brett Ratner.
In a lifeless conclusion to the original trilogy, legacy characters were dispatched indifferently, like soap opera actors who asked for more money and instead had their characters hastily killed off. And never forget the early attempts at digital de-ageing, where Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) looked like Madame Tussauds waxwork versions of themselves that someone had left out in the sun. And then it seemed like the series was done, except there was still the possibility of money to be made from it, so of course it wasn’t.
Rebooted mutants on the big screen
The obvious idea to expand the series with a prequel of sorts was already underway during production of X2, although this wasn’t intended to serve as a reboot. After X-Men: The Last Stand, plans for a standalone Magneto film were floated, and elements of this story eventually made their way into X-Men: First Class. Matthew Vaughn was the original director of The Last Stand (and was actually responsible for Kelsey Grammer’s casting), but pulled out prior to filming. His departure can’t have been that hostile, since he returned to the fold when it became evident that a reboot would be made. Vaughn reportedly got the gig on the strength of a little film called Kick-Ass, and he drafted his regular writing partner Jane Goldman to help him with rewrites of a script that had already gone through multiple versions.
X-Men: First Class reminded the world that despite the dark, allegorical nature of the characters, a film about superpowered mutants is also as camp as an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and as such, needed to be fun and suitably overblown. This is even despite the fact that the film opens with a young Magneto imprisoned at Auschwitz. It’s as though the casting director Googled “actors who are hot right now” and cast the roles accordingly.
The fun wasn’t forgotten
Michael Fassbender’s destiny was to play a younger version of Magneto, smouldering with fury and a weird kind of sexual energy. James McAvoy brings an endearing earnestness to his take on Charles Xavier, ably assisted by Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. And then there’s the beefed-up role for the shapeshifting Mystique, now played by Jennifer Lawrence, with a retconned (as far as the films go) backstory giving her a relationship with Charles that efficiently creates some emotional stakes for the story. There’s also Emma Frost, as played by January Jones, best known as Betty Draper in Mad Men, who plays Betty Draper with mutant powers and a reluctance to wear clothes.
There’s a grandstanding energy to X-Men: First Class, and Vaughn’s film neatly sidesteps the problem of origin stories that are less involving because audiences know the character’s eventual fate. Even though it’s not necessarily aimed at 14-year-old boys, it feels like a youthful film with a freshness that sits in striking contrast to the tired, depressive third instalment of the original trilogy. Well-written, well-rounded established characters now played by younger (okay, more physically attractive) actors hit the emotional beats of an origin story that seems as though it’s taking place in the same universe as the Sean Connery-era James Bond films. While there are holes to be picked in the story, Vaughn propels things along at such a rate that you don’t notice them, or rather, you don’t care about them. The X-Men had been rebooted, and what a stylish boot it was.
A promising new direction
Work on a sequel began some six months after X-Men: First Class had been released, although Vaughn originally wanted another entry in the series, to bridge the gap between his film and the writing that led to X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). That film never materialised, and Vaughn left the franchise to launch another one, with Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Original director Bryan Singer eagerly got his hands on the project, which wouldn’t happen nowadays due to the allegations that Singer had repeatedly gotten his hands on many young (and underage) men. His work on the X-Men series is likely to be Singer’s legacy, even though the multiple accusations of repulsive behaviour may have contaminated the series for some viewers.
And then it all went wrong
X-Men: Days of Future Past gave cause for optimism, bringing the original trilogy’s actors into the mix alongside the younger versions of the characters, and thanks to some time travel tomfoolery, the film kindly cancelled out most of the events in X-Men: The Last Stand. And with some creative thinking, that new timeline is where the series ended, and they all lived happily ever after (until Logan, anyway). Because there definitely wasn’t Bryan Singer’s humdrum X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), or Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (2019), which rehashed the storyline already exploited in Ratner’s film, and seemed to largely be improvised on the spot. It’s best to think of these entries as yawn-inducing timeline abnormalities caused by Wolverine romping through time, so just pretend they didn’t happen.
Now that 20th Century Fox (who held the rights to the characters) has been bought by Walt Disney, the X-Men will be integrated into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, in yet another reboot. Will superpowered mutants be quite so intriguing in a world already populated by Marvel superheroes? Of course, if Magneto, with his ability to control metal, had been around when the Avengers faced the underwhelmingly villainous robot Ultron, then he could have quickly turned him into durable garden furniture, and Avengers: Age of Ultron would have been five minutes long, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing.