X-Men: First Class

What It Is

Whether you call it a prequel or a reboot, X-Men: First Class reintroduces characters most viewers know already. You’re reminded of this immediately, as the film opens on a scene that appeared in the franchise’s first entry, X-Men: as young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) and his mother are separated by monstrous Nazis, the boy’s rage and pain fuel his mutant power (magnetism): he bends the iron gate, stunning his captors, who proceed to knock him unconscious and drag him off to meet the man Erik will come to call his “creator,” odious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

Attended by Nazi guards, Shaw’s a mutant himself (he’s able to absorb energy, which, he notes happily, “keeps me young”), and also determined to gather together an army of mutants so he might rule the world. Mutants, he insists, are the next step in human evolution. Erik escapes his clutches as a child, but as a young man (Michael Fassbender), he determines to get revenge on Shaw.

During the same period (1944-1962), another mutant, Charles Xavier (played as a child by Laurence Belcher and an adult by James McAvoy), uses his own brilliance (if not his mind-reading powers), to become a professor with a speciality in genetic mutations. Charles tells his best friend Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that mutants are superior, but also that they can harness their powers to educate and help ignorant humans rather than merely punish them. He gets his chance to test his theory when he’s approached by CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne): she’s seen some troubling goings-on involving Shaw and several minions, tornado-churning Riptide (Álex González), telepathic Emma Frost (January Jones), and devilish Azazel (Jason Flemyng).

Not exactly by chance, Charles and Erik meet and agree to work together to locate Shaw, though Erik is less happy to be helping the CIA than his new friend. Together, they gather together their own army of mutants, primarily teenagers like the winged Angel/Tempest (Zoë Kravitz), Darwin (Edi Gathegi) (who has the power of “reactive evolution,” whatever that means), and the preternaturally intelligent Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult).

Even as these armies prepare to battle, they’re surrounded by humans who continue to make their own mistakes; in this alternative history, Shaw instigates the Cuban Missile Crisis, compelling the Soviets to bait the U.S., hoping to draw the two sides into a mutually obliterating nuclear war. (Incidentally, Shaw gets hold of his own nuclear device, which energy he proceeds to absorb, in order to make himself into a bomb.) The showdown involves U.S. and Soviet ships, some archival footage of John Kennedy on TV, and lots of missiles fired (at the mutants). War is averted here by the X-Men’s shenanigans, rather than the secret negotiations now known to history. Still, the rift between mutants who want to work with humans and those who want to fight them persists, and the film ends where you know it must: with Charles (now Professor X) and Erik (now Magneto) on opposite sides.

Why It’s Fun

Like so many stories of how beloved characters came to be, this one is both fun and underwhelming. The fun part has to do with how Erik, so damaged by the Nazis, and Charles, so privileged as a boy in Westchester, New York, come to be friends as young men. Each is passionate in his own way, both fight prejudice and encourage mutant pride. But their emotional make-ups are very different, which makes their relationship complicated and mutable.

The story, however, is very by the numbers, recounting events that comics readers will know well, introducing a large cast of characters with precious little detail.

Fassbender is especially persuasive as the deeply conflicted Erik: he wants to honor his mother’s memory more than anything else, but has trouble sorting out his pain and outrage. On top of this, he’s drawn to a mutant community (even a family) that resists human prejudice (having lived in a Nazi camp, he’s seen some extreme effects of prejudice) and also proclaims pride in its difference from humans. And yet he’s also compelled to fight fire with fire, as it were, to treat bad humans as they’ve treated him. Fassbender makes this long-term emotional and moral dilemma rather mesmerizing.

Viewers in search of action will also be happy with the film, which delivers lots of explosions, flight and fight scenes, and transformation sequences. Hank’s transition into Beast is a little upsetting, and shown in fragmenting close-ups.

The budding romance between Charles and Moira, and Mystique’s efforts to find love with Charles, Hank, and even Erik, are less convincing, dotting the I’s of the source material (the Marvel comic books), but not doing much more than providing story points fans might be expecting.

Who’s Going To Love It

Fans of the comics will want to see how their favorite characters come to be. Fans of the film franchise will be happy to see it much improved after the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

We might also applaud the filmmakers’ decision not to shoot or retrofit in 3D, as is the fashion with so many franchise movies these days. The colors are bright, the images are crisp, and the use of screen space is fine.

What To Be Aware Of

When Shaw’s men first remove Erik from his mother and Shaw himself then shoots her point blank, the child’s horror is palpable. While he turns this upset into impressive special effects (moving and bending metal, killing Nazis), it’s still a scary pair of scenes, emotionally. And when he finally gets back at Shaw, he sends a coin straight through his skull, in slow motion.

A few scenes take place in bars: Charles and Mystique go drinking one night while he’s in grad school (she makes a class-conscious point when she tells a girl he tries to pick up that she — Mystique — is majoring in “waitressing,” while, of course, Charles is just rich); Charles drinks himself silly following his thesis presentation; and Angel is discovered in a strip club: drinking is visible in all these scenes.

Moira is introduced going undercover at a meeting of Shaw’s “Hellfire Club,” where wealthy and powerful men in suits are entertained by ladies wearing underwear. No explicit sexual activity.

The violent scenes are sometimes loud: explosions send vehicles and chunks of architecture and plate glass flying.

Erik’s methodical efforts to find Shaw — tracking Nazis in France and Argentina, for instance — lead to standoffs that might be harrowing for some viewers. If the blood is minimal, the upset of his victims is plain (one has a tooth filling extracted, another is stabbed, and a couple more are shot).

Mystique makes a brief attempt to seduce Erik, who plays along for a minute: she appears in the nude under a sheet, but to the film’s credit, the suggestion is all we see.

As usual in this series, frequent references are made to mutants making themselves visible or known, a process that parallels “coming out” and invites comparisons between mutant pride and gay pride.

Language alert: a cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) suggests why he’s not part of this “first class”: when Erik and Charles try to recruit him in a bar, he tells them, “Go f**k yourself.”

And, not to belabor an obvious point, but please: in 2011, the one mutant who dies is the black one. Isn’t there another way to introduce and structure a team of superheroes?

See-It-Again Points

5 out of 10

Film Information

X-Men: First Class
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2011
Rated: PG-13
US Premiere: June 3, 2011
UK Premiere: June 3, 2011
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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