X-Men: First Class (2011) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Running time: 132 min.
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz, Edi Gathegi, Michael Ironside
Cameo: Oliver Platt, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Romijn
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Mostly set in the pre-Bay of Pigs Cold War era (early 1960s), X-Men: First Class governs the origin of the X-Men, to be led by Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy, Wanted), and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Xavier's troubled friend and colleague, Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender, 300), who would become the X-men's arch nemesis, Magneto. Matthew Vaughn, who made a huge splash in the comic book adaptation genre with the potent Kick-Ass, breathes new life in what could have been a dying franchise after the price tag of its stars escalated beyond the ability to be viable and the desire to see a fourth new blood X-Men waned after X-Men: The Last Stand.
Though it does hearken back to the early days of the X-Men, X-Men: First Class is its own story, meant more to mesh with the history of the current day X-Men series than a recreation of the Marvel comic's first generation of mutants. The opening scene, set in Poland in 1944, hearkens back to an early scene in the first X-Men film of a young Erik, who sees his parents taken away in a concentration camp, and event which triggers his first instance of ultra-magnetic powers, setting the film firmly in the same universe as the other theatrical series. The occurrence is observed by a Nazi mad scientist (Bacon, Frost/Nixon), who uses trauma in order to provoke Erik to use his power to possible assist the Third Reich. As an adult in the 1960s, Erik is looking to get revenge on his Nazi captors, mainly Sebastian Shaw, as the scientist calls himself once out from hiding. He later meets and joins forces with Charles Xavier, a telepath specializing in genetic mutation, and his childhood friend Raven (Lawrence, Winter's Bone), a shapeshifter who ages more slowly than a normal human, when they are recruited by the CIA in order to thwart a missile crisis that is bound to lead to world annihilation, a plot hatched by Shaw to make the world a place run by the mutants.
Decent casting does help. No major bankable stars on the roster, but capable thespians, with McAvoy and Fassbender in particular making for good portrayals of Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively. Known actors such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, Knowing) and January Jones (Pirate Radio, We Are Marshall) - who is not very impressive as Emma Frost, though she does get to show off her impressive midriff throughout - provide familiarity, and newcomers like burgeoning star Jennifer Lawrence and Lucas Till (Battle: Los Angeles, Walk the Line) give spark in what might otherwise be cookie cutter characterizations. Some of the characters are silly, such as Beast's CGI look, and a few of the unheard of X-Men had that "Red Shirt" quality that lets fans know just which of the crew is expendable.
As with the other X-Men films, it is a "go with the flow" experience, whereby events unfold or characters do things that make little practical sense and would only provoke more questions than answers should the makers attempt to explain them. For instance, Kevin Bacon, who portrays the film's main villain in power-usurping (literally) Sebastian Shaw, dons a helmet that will ultimately be worn famously by Magneto. Why it is designed to look cool, and why only Magneto deems to wear such a thing in future years makes it a bit of a quandary (supposedly, the Russians crated a helmet to counter attempts by telepaths such as Xavier to read minds). Many narrative shortcuts are taken, the product of having too many characters and too little time to flesh any of them out more than is needed to facilitate plot developments late in the film. There are two instances whereby the mutants must pick sides prior to a mounting battle, and allegiances seem to change on a whim, without much rhyme or reason.
X-Men: First Class is uneven, but it is slick and Vaughn's direction, in addition to a fantastic, rousing score by Henry Jackman (Gullivers Travels, Monsters vs. Aliens), gives the film the gravitas and jolt of energy it needs when called for. Vaughn overreaches now and again, with a climax involving an armada of missiles directed at our heroes of mutant-kind that defies belief or explanation, but he gets enough of the important things right enough to garner a solid recommendation for superhero fans, and non-purist X-Fanatics should eagerly await what should be another solid set of X-Men films to look forward to.
©2011 Vince Leo