The sub-genre of comic book adaptations isn't exclusively composed of superhero-related material. With films like Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003), and A History of Violence (2005), "comic book movies" aren't just about costumed crime fighters. That said, when fans debate about which comic book film deserves the title of Best Comic Book Film, they're typically talking about movies where people wear tights and fly around.
Once upon a time, that was a very slim group of movies to discuss. You had the Superman and Batman franchises, a smattering of pulp or pulp-inspired adaptations - like The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994) and The Phantom (1996) - and a mostly embarrassing handful of Marvel Comics films.
All that changed in 2000 with X-Men. Marvel finally got in the game for real with Blade (1998) but it was X-Men that really put the Marvel movie brand on the map. Director Bryan Singer, with the help of producer (and X-Men fan) Tom DeSanto, made X-Men into a major evolutionary leap for comic book adaptations. Even if it wasn't quite a classic, it was definitely an important building block whose success would make other, better films possible.
Whereas fans once had to squint to see the faint remnants of their favorite comic characters in the movies that bore their namesakes, fidelity to the source material is now almost a given and X-Men helped that happen. In fact, we've become so accustomed to comic book adaptations taking their cues directly from the books that it's no longer a novelty when filmmakers get it right. But there's getting it right and then there's really nailing it and X-Men: First Class is an example of the latter.
In telling the tale of how two young leaders emerged from a budding young age of mutants in the 1960s - telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and master of magnetism Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) - X-Men: First Class combines elements of history, social allegory, coming of age drama, James Bond-ish action, splashy superheroics, and revolutionary ideology. And yet, incredibly, it never seems to be biting off more than it can chew. The script by director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and writers Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller, and Zack Stentz is swift-moving and uncluttered, despite its multitude of mutants and its political milieu.
As for how well First Class functions as a prequel to the X-Men trilogy and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), I couldn't say as it's been awhile since I've watched any of those films but the film begins as Singer's original X-Men did, with young Erik being separated from his parents in a concentration camp. Only now instead of the film jumping ahead to the present day, we see how the young boy's uncanny ability to bend metal with his mind catches the attention of scientist Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). Thanks to Schmidt's sadism, Erik's talents are tragically brought further to the surface.
By the '60s, Erik has become a hunter of Nazi war criminals, travelling the world and using his mutant talent to execute the guilty for their crimes. At the same time, Charles Xavier is covertly enjoying the fruits of his telepathic gifts until CIA agent Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) approaches him with the prospect of a world-changing assignment - rooting out a mutant who's intent on manipulating global nuclear tensions. This mutant is Sebastian Shaw, formerly Dr. Schmidt, and before long, both Xavier and Erik are working together with the American government to bring an opposing force of mutants to bear against Shaw and his so-called Hellfire Club.
McAvoy and Fassbender prove to be brilliantly cast, bringing their character's conflict to life and handily overcoming any comparisons to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, their mutual predecessors. The rest of the cast is sharp as well, although characters like Darwin (Edi Gathegi) understandably get a lot less screen time than Xavier and Erik do. Some viewers may be put off that characters like Emma Frost (January Jones) are essentially bit players here but it didn't bother me.
I'm not as fluent in the X-books as I am with other corners of the Marvel U so while I'm sure there's nitpicks to be made with continuity, I'm not aware of them. But even if I were, I probably wouldn't care. As a Spidey fanatic, I could make a case that the movie series should've had Betty Brant as Peter's first love, should have not introduced MJ until at least the third film, and should have kept the mystery of who the Green Goblin was running for a few films before his identity became a shocking reveal to Peter but I don't think there has to be such a painstaking attempt to emulate the books. As long as the essential spirit of the material is up on the screen along with most of the relevant character info, I'm good. To my eyes, First Class gets the X-Men right and I love that it pops off the screen with such Silver Age swagger.
The two Singer-directed X-films were smart but in terms of supplying comic book excitment, both left me kind of flat. I liked them but couldn't say I loved them. Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Gavin Hood's Wolverine were more appealingly "comic book" in their action but both were sadly knuckleheaded in other respects. First Class, in contrast, brings both the brains and the fun.
What works on a comic book page doesn't always carry over into film (or so we've been told) but yet Vaughn laces his film with touches that Singer (who is involved here as an executive producer) surely wouldn't have - such having Shaw tooling around in a submarine HQ that would've fit right into a Connery-era Bond movie. First Class is larger than life in a way that the previous X-films - and many modern comic book films in general - have been afraid to be. It lets its freak flag fly with real confidence, even as its characters struggle with their outsider status. Further, I'd like to say thanks to Vaughn for going against the grain and staging his action scenes with a clarity that's rare in modern movies. When several mutants are engaged in an ariel battle towards the end of First Class, it was thrilling to actually be able to follow what was going on (I also believe there was some old-school wirework involved in this scene, although I might be mistaken).
Extra kudos for the sly Superman II (1980) shout-out and for the very apt appearance of one of mutant-kind's finest, Michael Ironside, who played Darryl Revok in David Cronenberg's X-Men-ish classic Scanners (1981).
Based on the early photos from the film, I had serious doubts that First Class would be anything but an embarrassment (maybe not as bad as Wolverine but still an embarrassment). I like to think that I'm not normally susceptible to pre-judging but, to me, First Class looked truly awful. What a surprise, then, to find that this is one of the best films of its kind. Actually, strike that, it's just a great film period. Now if only First Class can become the hit that it deserves to be, hopefully we can get a '70s-set follow-up, with Dazzler lighting up the disco floor.