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X-Men: First Class (2011)

DIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn

CAST:

James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, Zoe Kravitz, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Platt

REVIEW:

Back when he wrote and directed 2000’s X-Men, Bryan Singer eschewed an origin story, jumping into the action with the X-Men already formed, deeming origin stories unnecessary and constraining.  A decade later, Singer (who helped develop the story and served as producer here) and director Matthew Vaughn decided to tackle the ‘origin story’ after all, not only of the ‘first class’ of X-Men, but the friends-turned-enemies Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto.  While 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to do anything interesting with its central character, Vaughn and company have righted that wrong here.  First Class is easily ahead of The Last Stand, and might well top out X-Men and X2 for the best installment the series has produced so far.

The opening scenes introduce us to two sharply contrasting men whose paths are destined to cross.  Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher as a boy, later James McAvoy) is the sheltered son of a wealthy family who can read and manipulate others’ minds, and one night catches shapeshifting runaway Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) rummaging for food in his kitchen disguised as his mother.  Instead of alarmed, the sunny Charles is delighted.  ‘I always knew I couldn’t be the only one who was different’, he says.  Meanwhile, Erik Lensherr travels a very different road.  As a boy (Bill Milner) in 1944 Poland, he is taken from his family in the Holocaust, then becomes the lab rat of Nazi doctor-and secret mutant-Klaus Schmidt (a deliciously evil Kevin Bacon), who torments the youth to unlock his metal-controlling powers.  When we pick up in 1962, Erik (Michael Fassbender) has grown into a fiercely determined, angry man on a globetrotting mission to avenge himself upon Schmidt, and eliminating any other fugitive Nazis he meets on the way.  Meanwhile, Charles Xavier is a college playboy and newly-minted professor whose telepathy lands him a job with CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) on the trail of a cabal of mutant supremacists led by none other than the former Dr. Schmidt, who has reinvented himself as the suave, wealthy American Sebastian Shaw.  He and his cohorts- the literally and figuratively icy Emma Frost (January Jones) and teleporting Azazel (Jason Flemyng) – are manipulating the Cuban Missile Crisis to the brink of nuclear apocalypse from behind the scenes as part of their world domination agenda.  When their shared search for Shaw leads to their first meeting, Charles and Erik are polar opposites.  Charles is a naive incurable optimist convinced they can convince mankind of their good intentions by stopping WWIII, while Erik has no faith in humans and considers mutants superior to them.  Charles is a peaceful negotiator; Erik embraces an eye for an eye and answering violence with violence.  Nonetheless, the two form a close friendship, and seek out other young mutants to teach them to hone and control their powers (and to rally their own forces against Shaw’s).  This ‘first class’ includes Charles’ adoptive ‘sister’ Mystique, brilliant young scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who will become the blue, furry Beast, Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), who blasts bolts of destructive energy, Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), who screams sonic waves powerful enough to shatter glass and carry him through the air, Darwin (Edi Gathegi), who adapts to any situation, and dragonfly-winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz).  But as they set out on their challenging first mission, Charles and Erik’s ideological differences will test their friendship to the breaking point.

Not content with following the standard formula of previous X-Men entries, director Matthew Vaughn paints his canvas on a scope more ambitious, international, and epic than we’ve ever seen before.  The result has a markedly different ‘feel’ than any other X-Men movie, but that’s not a criticism.  Vaughn’s ambition and daring is more fresh and stimulating than a paint-by-numbers prequel would have been.  The early scenes of Erik Nazi-hunting his way through Switzerland and Argentina, for example, feel more like a gritty spy thriller than a comic book superhero movie.  The filmmakers use the nice touch of actually using the subtitled native languages of the international locales, with Kevin Bacon speaking his opening scene entirely in German and a later scene in Russian, and Michael Fassbender speaking both German and French.  The blending of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fantastical spin on the famous events is intriguing, and the climax is far larger-scale than any we’ve had previously in the series.  Impressively, considering the large amount of ground and material it covers, the pace is remarkably smooth (the 131-minute running time passes quickly), and the multi-layered plot moves with assurance and energy.  Vaughn is juggling a lot of balls, but he never feels like he’s in danger of losing control.

Like Chris Pine in 2009’s Star Trek reboot, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender strove to make the parts of Charles and Erik their own rather than imitating Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and both were candid in interviews about basing their portrayals on the comics, not their older alter egos.  The most completely successful is Fassbender, who takes the role of the young Erik and runs with it, bringing a steely intensity rivaling that of Christian Bale’s Batman.  His Erik is rougher-around-the-edges and less elegant than Ian McKellen’s, but also more intimidating and more brutal.  His presence is so forceful that the other actors seem to revolve around him in their scenes together, and he commands the screen whenever he’s on camera.  Fassbender’s Erik is just as badass as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, but in an entirely different way, ice instead of Jackman’s fire.  Previously best-known as the British-German double agent in Inglourious Basterds, and as the brooding and mysterious Rochester in the most recent version of Jane Eyre, Fassbender deserves to be a better-known name after this.  McAvoy, already a Golden Globe nominee for Atonement and like Fassbender making his way into wider attention here, is marginally less successful, mostly because he’s playing the more mellow, and thus inherently less captivating good guy next to Fassbender’s ferocious anti-hero.  McAvoy doesn’t make anyone forget about Patrick Stewart, and has neither Stewart nor Fassbender’s commanding presence, but he wisely doesn’t try to compete with them and commits to his own revamped young Charles, who has yet to gain the maturity, wisdom, and serenity his older, balder, and wheelchair-bound alter ego exuded.  When we meet Charles, he’s as we’ve never seen him before, arrogant in his own powers and intelligence, using tidbits about mutation as pick-up lines, bursting with confidence and optimism.  He doesn’t completely understand the feelings of his ‘sister’ Raven, who has to conceal her mutation by wearing a false mask of normal ‘beauty’ in a way that Charles, whose mutation lies within, has never had to do.  He’s a little vain, a little cocky, a little naive, but as their mission goes on, we feel McAvoy’s Charles shifting ever so slightly closer to the wise mentor figure we know.  Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is given character development that the character never received in the original trilogy, and we see her desire to look normal shifting (with Erik’s influence) to a defiant pride in her blue-scaled yellow-eyed true face.  Nicholas Hoult supplies the contrasting subplot as Hank, whose misfired experiment transforming him into the full-fledged Beast seems almost an ironic punishment for his concern with blending into society, but the other team members- Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lenny), and Edi Gathegi- aren’t given a chance to do anything besides look more-or-less like their comic book characters and provide a few action scenes.  With the exception of Kevin Bacon, who seems to be enjoying himself immensely savoring Shaw’s smooth menace, the same lack of personality applies to the villains.  Like Banshee, Havok, Darwin, and Angel, Emma Frost and Azazel are distinguished by their powers, not their characters.  Rose Byrne does a good job with what she has, landing a few strong moments in an underwritten role.  Oliver Platt provides a smidgeon of comic relief, but his screentime is limited.  There are a lot of recognizable faces who pop up in bit parts, including Matt Craven (as the CIA director), James Remar (as a US General), Michael Ironside (as a battleship captain), Ray Wise (as the US Secretary of Defense), and Rade Sherbedgia (as a Soviet General), so much so that at times it’s like playing ‘spot the character actor!’.

First Class contains a number of crackerjack scenes, and it doesn’t pull many punches; if any X-Men movie merits parental caution, this is it.  The opening scene of what Erik endures at Schmidt/Shaw’s hands is chilling, Erik’s quest for vengeance is violent and brutal, and Hugh Jackman makes a surprise cameo long enough to drop the movie’s sole F-bomb (a movie can maintain its PG-13 rating with an F-bomb, provided it’s the only one).  Later there is a scene with Erik and two enemies all downing a glass while everyone nervously eyes everyone else, wondering who will make the first move, that has the kind of tension and style of a classic Western.  Then there is Charles and Erik’s assault on a Russian military compound to ambush Emma Frost, and the climactic countdown to the brink of Armageddon, with American and Soviet ships in a point blank staredown and the X-Men- and Shaw- in the middle.  Other scenes are memorable for reasons other than action.  The sometimes heavy mood is lightened by a humorous and quick-cutting training montage that showcases everyone’s powers.  And there is real poignancy in the moment when Charles unlocks a happy memory of Erik’s mother that he didn’t know he had, bringing a tear to Erik’s eye (and perhaps to that of some audience members as well).  Perhaps most crucially, even in the middle of all the action and intrigue, the central relationship between Charles and Erik is well-developed enough that the inevitable parting has genuine emotional impact.

Vaughn doesn’t steep his world in as much ’60s vibe as he could have, but he throws in touches here and there, with Charles referring to mutations as ‘groovy’, and the intentionally retro ending credits.  With his swanky bachelor pad, yacht, scantily-clad right-hand-woman and colorful henchmen, secret submarine base, and world domination plot, Kevin Bacon’s debonair Shaw would feel right at home as a James Bond villain; all he’s missing is a fluffy white cat.  Speaking of Shaw, while there’s nothing wrong with Bacon’s performance, his plot is cliched and generic, and in all the movies where it’s been employed, it’s never struck me as well thought out; what’s the point of ruling the world if all you’ve got left to rule over are nuked ruins?  More interesting is the parallel the movie draws between hunter and hunted; even Erik himself acknowledges that he and Shaw’s views and goals are the same, and their enmity is purely for personal reasons.  The movie throws in some easter eggs for fans- the Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn cameos are particular surefire treats- as well as a few scattered continuity issues that leave First Class occupying a vague netherworld halfway between outright prequel and slight reboot, although said contradictions are minor enough that most casual viewers probably won’t pick up on them.  Other flaws are minor; a character is undeveloped to the point where a switching of sides lacks any motive or meaning, the mask Nicholas Hoult wears as Beast limits his facial expressiveness, and Magneto’s costume has yet to translate well to screen and avoid making anyone who wears it, even actors as authoritative as McKellen and Fassbender, look silly.  And, perhaps inevitably, the movie doesn’t entirely escape the prequel pitfall of feeling like it’s setting up future installments instead of telling a story all its own, with various plot points clicking into place.  Hank becomes Beast.  Check.  Charles is crippled.  Check.  Erik gets his helmet.  Check.    Mystique joins Magneto.  Check.  This is all done in a way that feels a lot more fresh and a lot less perfunctory than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it’s still a touch of perhaps unavoidable prequelitis.

But these are minor quibbles.  First Class reenergizes a franchise left floundering in the wake of the misjudged Last Stand and the uninspired Wolverine, and in fact ascends to the level of one of the stronger comic book movies, not up to the high bar set by The Dark Knight, but ahead of its X-Men predecessors and the Spider-Man films.  I hope box office returns reflect the film’s quality; this cast and crew deserves another chance to return to this material and characters.  X-Men: First Class is an intelligent, well-crafted, well-acted film.  I only hope this its attributes are recognized and appreciated, to convince Fox to give us more of this instead of what immediately preceded it.

***1/2

 

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