X-Men: First Class
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jason Flemyng
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language
The latest installment in the X-Men franchise has wisely sidestepped the rebooting trend so popular right now by giving us a period piece exploring the history of Professor X and Magneto. Before they were archnemeses, they were just Charles and Erik, and they were friends.
Michael Fassbender makes Erik Lehnsherr an action hero you can cheer for as he tracks down the Nazis who killed his parents and abused him to bring out his mutant powers. James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is a young man somehow both wise beyond his years and thoroughly idealistic. Watching their friendship develop even as the seeds of their future battles start to sprout is a lot of fun, and the film’s best scenes are the ones between the two young men. It’s becoming a tradition to cast talented actors as these two titans, and it’s nice to see that continue here.
Charles, his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence as the future Mystique), and Erik begin to track down other mutants, and slowly gather a group of youngsters to ally with the CIA and battle the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), once the bane of Erik’s youth and now a free agent trying to start World War III. Shaw has his own band of mutants, though, and they’re far better trained than the kids Charles and Erik have on their side.
The film has loads of cameos and references to the other X-Men source materials tucked into it, but manages to not make the film opaque to newcomers by doing so. This is a self-contained story, and while it gets a little rambly between the climax and the credits, it’s generally well-written, especially for a comic book movie. There are some surprisingly touching moments in it, and it draws out the complexities of Erik and Charles’ stories as individuals and as friends without sliding into scenery-chewing and melodrama.
There’s a feel of the classic tragedy to their story — although they start as friends, it is inevitable from the moment they meet that they will wind up as enemies. Erik is as cynical as Charles is idealistic, and no surprise: it’s hard to believe in the innate goodness of humans when you spent your formative years as a lab rat for a concentration camp doctor. Charles, on the other hand, is capable of pleading for the lives of people who just tried to kill him, and does so with conviction. Both men want to bring mutants together and offer them safety and support, but because of the differences in their natures, their methods are diametrically opposed.
It’s a pleasure to see this kind of tragic plotline handled well in what is essentially a big-budget action and effects flick. Those special effects are mostly impressive, though a massive crash sequence near the end was reminiscent of the early days of CGI and stood out amid the top-notch work in the rest of the film. It’s hard to take fake-looking trees being flattened seriously when you’ve been watching a red-skinned guy with a tail vanish into wisps of red smoke, a beautiful blonde turn her entire body into diamond, and ordinary metal fly around the room or crumple in on itself like tinfoil.
Overall, “X-Men: First Class” is superb summer comic movie fare, and while fans of the other films (and, if they’re open-minded, of the comics) will likely love it, it doesn’t require any familiarity with the source material to be a lot of fun.