Movie review: 'X-Men: First Class' redeems the franchise
As a devout hater of comic-book movies, it is indeed begrudging to admit that “X-Men: First Class” accomplishes super heroic feats in its rescuing of a flagging franchise.
It’s not entirely successful, mind you, but it is a huge step up over the last two films, which turned the X’s into Zzzzzz’s.
Like “Batman” and “Star Trek” before it, “X-Men: First Class” wisely goes back to the beginning to relight the fading embers of a concept that seemed to have run its course. And what director Matthew Vaughn and his army of co-writers have done to achieve that is as daring as it is galling.
Educators and historians will be particularly peeved at how Vaughn and company have rewritten history to meet the outrageous demands of a tale that begins in a Nazi concentration camp and ends at the pinnacle of the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The CIA also might take exception to how it is portrayed as a collection of incompetent dolts. But, screw them; the target audience of teenage boys probably couldn’t give a rat’s behind about Hitler, Castro or Khrushchev.
They want bizarre characters, funky special effects and comprehendible action scenes that go light on the cheese. They get all that and more, as Vaughn imaginatively reinvents the mutant-superhero genre just one year after totally trashing it with his funny, lacerating satire, “Kick-Ass.” But that doesn’t mean he leaves out any of the fun, injecting numerous one-liners that are as knowing as they are glib.
It’s the two lead performances, though, that send “X-Men: First Class” soaring, with accomplished thespians James McAvoy (“Atonement”) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) fleshing out intriguing Shakespearean undertones in their portrayals of franchise mainstays Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto.
We know them from the previous films as philosophical enemies, the Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X of the nonviolent and militant factions of the mutant community. But for this film’s purposes, they are temporarily united in their quest to end the world’s persecution of the chromosomally challenged.
Standing in their way is one nasty hombre in Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, a former Nazi doctor who sends chills from the get-go. Erik, then a child, watches in horror as the sour kraut offs the boy’s mother right in front of him. From that point on, it becomes Erik’s mission to hunt down the maniacal war criminal and serve up some whoop-ass justice.
Little does Erik know that Shaw’s a mutant, too; one able to absorb great amounts of energy to convert into pure evil. Bacon performs much the same feat in absorbing much of the film’s energy as a mustache-twirling villain plotting to instigate an American-Soviet thermonuclear war designed to open the door to mutant rule in October 1962.
That showdown, of course, is about to take place in Cuba, 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida, and it’s up to Professor X, Magneto and their newly recruited teenage-mutant minions to stop it from happening. That is, of course, if the professor can keep his deeply divided troops from breaking ranks before the mission is complete.
The conflicts, as well as the meetings of the minds, between Professor X and Magneto are as intriguing as they are thrilling. That’s especially true early on, when each thinks they’ve found a kindred spirit in the other, as they conspire to bring down Shaw and save the world. But there’s never a lack of tension between them, as Professor X preaches cohabitation with the humans and Magneto wants only to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Yes, it’s silly and cliché, but McAvoy and Fassbender sell it as effectively as Steve Jobs sells iPhones. They answer the call, too; no matter if the mood is comical, dramatic or absurd. But it’s Fassbender who steals the show with his swarthy good looks and James Bond-like demeanor that adds welcome swagger to Erik’s Nazi-hunting exploits in the film’s suspenseful first act. That only makes it more rueful when he’s asked to momentarily retract his claws during a sluggish middle act when passiveness and moralizing prevail.
Still, even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Professor X’s nonviolent approach to life, I found myself unbending in my backing of the magnetic Magneto’s malevolence. Well, I did until he donned that silly helmet made famous by Sir Ian McKellen. Then he lost me. So did the movie, as it progressively grew less about characters and more about appeasing X-Men fan boys hungering to glean the origins of X-Men lore.
That includes such dull insights as Professor X’s first encounter with his mind-reading enhancer, the Cerebro (looking like a freaky hairdryer) and the maiden flight of the X-Jet. The film’s worst impediment, however, is its insistence on ladling on supporting characters, whether it’s a lovely-in-lingerie CIA operative (Rose Byrne from “Bridesmaids”) sympathetic to the mutants; Shaw’s beautiful, crystal-encrusted henchwoman, Emma Frost (an awful January Jones from “Mad Men”); or the insecure-in-her-blue-skin Mystique, nicely played by recent Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”).
At least those three are more interesting than the rest of the cast of mutants, whose “special gifts” obviously do not include acting ability. I mean you, Edi Gethagi: your Darwin never evolves. And you, Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lenny): your wing-sprouting Angel never takes flight.
Less of them and more of McAvoy, Bacon and particularly Fassbender might have taken “X-Men: First Class” to the level of magna cum laude instead of just another B movie.
Still, in a summer polluted with junk like “Thor” and “Pirates 4,” that’s practically a reason for celebration, as this “X” definitively marks its spot.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS(PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.) Cast includes Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence. Co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn. 3 stars out of 4.