This summer's blockbuster X-Men: First Class is set in the 1960s – the dawn of the Space Age, and a time filled with the hope of JFK’s Camelot. But it was also the height of the Cold War, when escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened the entire planet – and when the world discovered the existence of mutants.
It is also during this period that Charles Xavier met Erik Lehnsherr. Before Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) took the names Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men discovering their powers. Before they were archenemies they were the closest of friends, working together and with other mutants to stop the greatest threat the world has ever known. Some of these young mutant recruits are fan favorites from the previous X-Men films, while others are classic heroes from the comics but new to the film series. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS provides answers to questions that have long intrigued fans of the movies or comics: How did the X-Men come together? Why is Charles in a wheelchair? Where did the X-Mansion and Cerebro come from? But its themes and historical context will resonate with those unfamiliar with the other films in the series.
Franchise New Beginnings
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a new beginning for the X-Men. The story is by Sheldon Turner, an Academy Award nominee for co-scripting Up in the Air, and Bryan Singer – whose work as the director of the first two films in the series, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, was hailed by critics and audiences around the world for their skillful and seamless blending of drama, action, scale and social-political themes. Singer’s X-Men films became a template for the resurgence in comics- to-movie adaptations, and landmarks in the new age of superhero films.
Most of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is set in the 1960s, an apt period for an origins tale because it was during this decade that Marvel Comics editor, head writer and art director Stan Lee, along with Jack Kirby, created the X-Men comics. The X-Men, like many of their Marvel predecessors, are an unusual heroic group – at times sarcastic, anti-social and clearly flawed, yet sympathetic when battling the demons of their love lives, tackling the traumas of self-esteem, or taking on powerful villains in their universe of special powers. They are the children of the atom, homo superior, and the next link in the chain of evolution. Each mutant was born with a unique genetic mutation, which at puberty manifested itself in extraordinary powers. In a world increasingly filled with hatred, prejudice and fear, they are scientific oddities…freaks of nature…outcasts who are feared and loathed by those who cannot accept their differences.
“The first order of business in conceiving the story,” says Producer Singer, “was figuring out the era in which both Charles and Erik would have met, when they were in their mid-twenties. We decided that would be the early ‘60s – the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War. Both aspects of that period provided an exciting opportunity to explore events that would shape our modern world.” One of the Cold War’s flashpoints was the Cuban missile crisis, during which the threat of sudden global extinction loomed large, and which provided the ultimate stakes for mutants to reveal themselves to the world and prevent a conflagration that would engulf the planet.
An equally important context for the film is the issue of civil rights – will the mutants be accepted by humanity, or will they be seen as threats to be imprisoned or even eliminated? Should mutants embrace their differences and reign as the planet’s superior beings, or should they become part of the fabric of society? “I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of assimilation versus aggression – and when the civil rights movement of the day becomes the mutant rights movement of tomorrow,” says Singer.
Singer began thinking about an origins story when was directing the first two X-Men pictures. “I would always think about the histories of the characters when telling the actors how to inform their characters’ behavior. So to be able to go back and execute those backstories I had in my imagination was very satisfying.”
One of those actors who had asked Singer about a character history was Patrick Stewart, who portrayed Charles Xavier in the first three X-Men films. “Patrick was wondering about the origins of Charles, and even then I had an idea about it, which was very different from the comics’ version,” Singer recalls. “I explained the comics’ version of the origins, which was set in Tibet and involved an alien agent named Lucifer, and then I explained my ideas. Patrick said, ‘I prefer it your way!’”
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is not Vaughn’s first encounter with the film franchise. After making his directorial debut with the acclaimed independent film Layer Cake, Vaughn came close to helming the third film in the X-Men series, X-Men: The Last Stand, before moving on to direct the critically hailed fantasy epic Stardust and the graphic novel adaptation Kick-Ass.
Vaughn says he took on X-MEN: FIRST CLASS because he sparked to Singer’s idea of setting the story during the Cold War. “I was immediately struck by the cleverness of Bryan’s idea, which was an interesting way of integrating the characters into recent history,” Vaughn remembers. Adds the director’s writing partner Jane Goldman: “One of the things that excited us most about the project was the political backdrop – the idea of integrating that aspect with the X-Men backstory really captured our imaginations.” (Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz, a screenwriting duo who recently co-wrote Thor, receive screenplay credit, along with Vaughn & Goldman.)
While expanding upon the story’s humanistic and political themes, Vaughn and Goldman brought yet another intriguing element of that era into the mix. “The film is X-Men meets the Cuban missile crisis meets James Bond,” Vaughn notes. “It has elements of the ‘60s Bond films starring Sean Connery – the coolness, the action, the danger. It’s three genres all mixed together.”
The Cast at a glance
JAMES McAVOY (Charles) was born in the Scotstoun area of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1979 and is a graduate of the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. In his short career, he has tested himself with a wide variety of work, on stage, television and film, and is regarded as one of the U.K.’s most exciting acting talents.
MICHAEL FASSBENDER (Erik Lehnsherr), born in Germany, grew up in Killarney, Ireland, and studied and strained at the Drama Centre. Fassbender’s breakthrough role came in the epic Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks production, Band of Brothers. Fassbender’s big screen debut was in director Zack Snyder’s hugely successful 300.
KEVIN BACON (Sebastian Shaw / Dr. Schmidt) is one of the foremost actors of his generation. His talent for balancing starring roles with powerful supporting characters on both film and stage has allowed him to build a varied and critically acclaimed body of work.
ROSE BYRNE (Moira MacTaggert) has established herself as a rising star of the big screen. The Australian native commands the attention of filmgoers and television viewers with her beauty, talent, versatility and poise.
JANUARY JONES (Emma Frost) is a versatile actress who has gained the attention of fans and critics alike. Jones recently starred with Liam Neeson in Warner Bros. and Dark Castle’s Unknown. Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) directed from a screenplay penned by Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell and Karl Gajdusek.
OLIVER PLATT (MIB) has enjoyed success in film, television and on stage. Most recently, Platt appeared in Edward Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs and Roland Emmerich’s 2012. Other recent credits include Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give opposite Catherine Keener, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon opposite Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell, and the Harold Ramis comedy Year One opposite Jack Black and Michael Cera.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE (Raven/Mystique) is one of Hollywood's most promising young actresses. Lawrence was nominated for the 2011 Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Ree, a hardened teenager who takes care of her younger siblings and her mentally ill mother, in the absence of her drug dealer father, in Debra Granik's critically acclaimed film Winter’s Bone.
NICHOLAS HOULT (Hank/Beast), since taking a notable role in the 2002 blockbuster About A Boy, has gone on to work in a variety of film and television roles. His film highlights include Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans and Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Other credits include Kidulthood, Wah-Wah, and The Weather Man.
Expect more from these good lookers super charged wth super powers in the super movie X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class opens in cinemas 2 June
All photos and notes courtesy of Warner Bros Singapore
POPCulture Online June 2011 All Rights Reserved