One of the things I adore, I mean simply love, about Xbox Live Arcade is how I can do just about anything I want to do through a web browser. Buy a game? Web browser. Punch in a code for points? Web browser. Even editing you avatar can be done in, you guessed it, a web browser.
It seems obvious then that when I went to watch X-Men: First Class through Microsoft’s Zune service, I thought I’d try going through the web browser this time rather than using my 360 to pick it out. Given that I’m accessing the same service both ways, and it’s the same Live account, I assumed I could probably just drop into the Zune Marketplace on the web, pick out X-Men: First Class, hit rent, and have it ready to go on my 360. Alas, this was not to be.
The first stage of the plan went well, I took myself over Zune.net, and found that I was logged into the right account through Microsoft’s central Windows Live service. Excellent. Next up was finding the film, a simple enough task.
I clicked through to the movies section (Zune Marketplace does music as well), and there was First Class, sitting front and center right next to Green Lantern, the film I watched last time I was in charge of Streaming Movie Club. The web interface for a film isn’t quite as nice the one you’re presented with on the 360, but it’s by no means bad. The preview for the film doesn’t autoplay, but a link is present and that’s probably preferable on the web. It also has user reviews, something not present on the 360 version. Most importantly though, there was a “Rent for Zune” button, exactly what I wanted; or so I thought anyway.
On selecting the rent option I was told I needed to download software. This was, frankly, not what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if the software would force me to watch it through my laptop, not something I wanted, and given the ease with which the Xbox Live Arcade web interface can be used I was more than a little surprised. I could understand making me download a client for watching the film, but just to add it to my account? Sorry, not going to happen.
I not only missed the film version of First Class when it was showing at the cinema, but I also missed the comic series that the film is based upon. Normally I’d quite happily watch the film and compare it to the source comics in every possible way, but not this time.
As the film’s name may suggest to you it deals with the origins of the X-Men, quite literally the first class of mutants to serve under the tutelage of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and, perhaps surprisingly, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), better known as Magneto. For those of you not familiar with the history of the X-Men this is how it all started, with Xavier and Magneto working together before their opinions on the future of mutants diverged (which is an understatement and a half).
The film kicks off before the two meet, detailing their origins, what made them who they are. The beginning of the film jumps back and forth between their lives, which really showcases the difference between the two. Whilst Xavier was a child of privilege, growing up in a mansion and eventually attending Oxford, Magneto’s story starts in a Nazi concentration camp. His family were Jewish, and although the film certainly doesn’t skim over the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, it doesn’t go into too much detail. In fact it strikes a pretty good balance, with just enough horror shown to give you an understanding of Magneto’s motivations throughout the rest of his life, but not enough that you focus on the atrocities over other elements.
The film jumps forwards a few times at this point, detailing Xavier’s quest for knowledge of mutations and Magneto’s quest for vengeance against those who experimented on him during his time as a prisoner, before it settles down on the 1960s. More specifically most of the film is set against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, with the film’s main villains (the Hellfire Club) manipulating both the Americans and the Russians into a position where nuclear war is almost inevitable.
Eventually Xavier and Magneto are brought together by the CIA, working to counter the mutants that form the Hellfire Club. After their first attempt to take out the club is unsuccessful they return to the CIA and start to form their own team. Cue quick cut sequence of Magneto and Xavier going across the USA, for some reason pretty much only selecting “kids” for their cause. It’s heavily implied that older mutants are few and far between, but still they only actually attempt to recruit one (the one being Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who rejects them instantly in a short cameo).
Well I say only they’re all kids, but amongst them are Angel (Zoë Kravitz) who is working as a stripper, Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a cabby, and Havok (Lucas Till) is in prison. It’s implied that they’re all young though, and they certainly look it. It’s a confusing point that makes it hard to pick out the ages of the team. They’re constantly referred to as “kids” by other characters, so it’s probably safe to assume that they’re all at least under twenty.
The formation of the team itself is a little clichéd, as is the moment when they’re hanging out together and the film briefly becomes a children’s TV show. It’s particularly cringe worthy when they’re picking out code-names for each other, having decided that they’re secret agents and all secret agents clearly need code-names. Obviously they need to demonstrate they’re powers so an appropriate name can be selected, which basically introduces you to them in the worst ten minutes of the film by a mile. It really is awful.[drop2]A far nicer sequence of scenes comes later, when the team has relocated to Xavier’s family mansion and the future site of his school. You see Xavier really grow into his role as teacher, helping everyone (including Magneto) to fully utilise their powers and show what they’re really capable of. This is a much better way of introducing the characters, and gives some real growth to all of the characters.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the film is that just about everything is really a backdrop for the evolving relationship between Xavier and Magneto. Sure, there are some absolutely fantastic action scenes and the dynamic between the mutants and the CIA is certainly interesting, but even the Cuban missile crisis seems to fall by the wayside here. It’s not that the film doesn’t spend enough time on these elements, in fact apart from the scene noted earlier the rest of the film is exceptionally well realised with even minor sub-plots seemingly remarkably strong. It’s just that the performances from McAvoy and Fassbender are absolutely stunning and completely steal the show.
At the other end of the spectrum you have Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw who heads up the Hellfire Club. His perfomance isn’t actually that weak, it’s just that the character he’s been given feels so one-dimensional and stereotypically “evil” that it would be hard to turn in a particularly strong showing. In fact it’s clear that his only reason for existing it to tempt Magneto over to the “dark side”, he feels almost exactly the same as the Magneto later in life that we’ve seen in the other X-Men films if you stripped away the driving force behind his character; he’s just evil for the sake of being evil.
Ultimately First Class’s few minor issues don’t really detract significantly from the overall film. In fact it’s impressive just how much is fit into the film without it ever being rushed, we get all the way from Magneto and Xavier as children, see the formation of the first team of X-Men (although they aren’t called that), go through the Cuban missile crisis and finally ends at the foundation of Xavier’s school without ever feeling like anything was rushed or skimmed over.
Through all of it we see how Magneto and Xavier’s fragile relationship forms and changes, something that makes the film feel less like a superhero film and more like a character piece. Whilst that might sound strange, it actually sets the film apart and elevates it over the other comic book adaptations on offer this year, making it exceptionally easy to recommend.