REVIEW: X-Men: First Class [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: June 3rd, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Matthew Vaughn
Writer(s): Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn / Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer (story)

“Mutant and proud”

The new world order begins and sides are chosen as Matthew Vaughn—five years late—finally gets his crack at the world of Marvel mutants. X-Men: First Class arrives to tell us the origins of what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, retreating back into the 40s, paralleling of the Holocaust with the world’s inevitable reaction to a new breed of evolution and how the oppressed become the oppressors to survive. It’s a very fine line between good and evil, right and wrong, retribution and revenge. Charles Xavier hones his intelligence and telekinesis at a very young age, readying for a future where he can help others like him understand their powers and wield them for good, while Erik Lehnsherr discovers the Nazis left him with anger, pain, and the basic manual to becoming the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen. They stand opposed as mortal enemies, constantly hoping the other will wake and join him, one forever dreaming of acceptance and coexistence with humans as the other waits to rule as Earth’s most advanced race. Both proud and ready to exit the shadows, this is the start of a war humans can only watch and pray for survival.

With a list of mutants to make you cringe with memories of Last Stand, the almost just as long index of credited writers—with multiple script revisions and the cannibalization of the now defunct X-Men Origins: Magneto—somehow manage to weave them all into a cohesive, albeit lengthy, tome of outsiders paving a way for themselves, learning about their abilities, and discovering whether the light or dark of their soul is stronger. We laugh at the ‘hard’ childhood of Charles, alone in a mansion with absentee parents, allowing him not only the time to study and develop his skills, but also to take a young girl his age under his wing, a girl named Raven with the chameleon-like gift of transforming appearances. While he works his way to a Ph.D., we shudder at the horrors rained down upon Erik, discovering how he can control all metal through the rigors of Nazi encampment—watching his family torn apart, his mother murdered before his eyes, and the camp’s doctor Sebastian Schmidt turning him into a lab rat, (allusions to Wolverine’s creation unavoidable). It’s most definitely a case of nature versus nurture as the deepest seeds of self-worth and compassion are planted with immovable roots.

Flash forward to the 1960s and we are thrust into the days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mutants are beginning to acknowledge their gifts, but also the need to hide them from sight, afraid by what might happen if exposed. Charles (James McAvoy) finishes school with ‘sister’ Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) by his side. Delving into the field of genetic mutations, hoping to find a way to break the news, help his kind, and bring about co-habitation, his charmed life is far from the chaos of the others. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is shown to be at the end of his search for Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), now going by Shaw, bloodlust consuming every fiber of his being; Angel (Zoë Kravitz) works the stripper pole, more comfortable being gawked at for her curves than her wings; Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) utilizes his massive brain power to do good with the CIA, hiding his beast-like feet from view; and Alex Summers (Lucas Till) remains in self-exiled prison isolation, hoping his uncontrollable emanations of energy don’t wreak havoc on innocents in his path. These, for all intents and purposes, kids need guidance and a sense of belonging only Charles can give; America’s need for help against nuclear war paving the way towards a removal of anonymity.

Shaw and his minions—Emma Frost (January Jones), Riptide (Álex González), and Azazel (an unrecognizable Jason Flemyng)—are playing for keeps, pitting the two superpowers of America and Russia to the brink of utter annihilation. Blackmailing both sides to position missiles in Turkey and Cuba respectively with the uncertainty of his powers, Shaw readies for when the ashes settle and all that’s left are the bodies of humanity, dead and cold, with he and his brotherhood alive to rebuild a society of super-beings because, like any comic book incarnation, the bad guys always have the coolest abilities. It’s all about the allure for recruits and the desire for prevailing underdogs to prove good intrinsically defeats all evil. We watch as the burgeoning contingent of X-Men learn to use, at first blush, lame powers like Banshee’s (Caleb Landry Jones) shriek and Darwin’s (Edi Gathegi) adaptation prowess, while Shaw absorbs energy, Frost turns to impenetrable diamond, and Azazel transports in a cloud of smoke with everything he touches, reminding us how cool his son Nightcrawler was in X2. The lesser powers soon show their strength as the plot continues and the greater ones falter behind their holder’s hubris, both combining to show how the war coming will span decades.

There are so many actors included and all do justice to their roles in varying degrees. Flemyng is my favorite character of the film in his stoic malice, exuding his power in the actions between puffs of red; Hoult is fantastic battling between worlds, forever seeing himself as an outcast wanting to be included, loving his smarts but abhorring his appearance; and Lawrence is good as the young Mystique, although the blank, tense stare that wowed in Winter’s Bone is out-of-place on her dolled-up, attractive visage. The weak link to the performances comes from Bacon and Jones, both so close to perfection, but unable to reach it. He has unfortunately become such a caricature of late that I believe his Shaw would have been more effective if it was more over-the-top, his straddling of goofiness a tad distracting, and she does her best Betty Draper, the cold detachment that works with a bored housewife yet underwhelms as cold-blooded killer. And that leaves McAvoy and Fassbender’s friendship of mutual respect and love fracturing into a rivalry with hopes to prove the other wrong. These two are enjoying a lot of success lately and it’s much deserved as they give brilliant performances that rise above the comic book material, even as it rises above it’s own preconceptions and clichés.

The story they inhabit is long—pushing past the two-hour mark—but intriguing enough to progress at a nice pace. Heavy in exposition, the knowledge of viewers familiar with the previous trilogy, if not the comics and cartoon, that it will end with the split of Magneto’s Brotherhood and Professor X’s X-Men cuts through the need for a climatic battle to overshadow the nuance of what’s before. This whole thing is about personal struggle, good training evil in hopes of change it knows is impossible, and how persecution doesn’t only exist in the hearts and minds of those from the past. We will always look on those different from us with skepticism; it’s human nature. So, X-Men: First Class becomes less a ‘superhero’ movie than a character piece of accepting oneself as someone to be proud in. There are laughs and spectacular fight sequences—Shaw’s men breaking into the CIA facility housing Charles’ new wards is phenomenal—but also a glimpse of what made the X-Men so beloved by readers. We see ourselves in their struggles, aspiring to be good as we hope to help those trapped on a path of anger. Allegiances change and the stage sets for the future as these origins astutely intertwine with the world Bryan Singer brought to the big screen a decade ago.

[1] Erik (Michael Fassbender), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Charles (James McAvoy), Moira (Rose Byrne), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Havok (Lucas Till) join forces to prevent the greatest disaster the world has ever known. Photo: Murray Close – TM and ©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) are powerful mutants scheming to trigger a nuclear war that will result in the demise of humanity – and the ascension of mutants. Photo: Murray Close – TM and ©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] Before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, left) and Erik Lehnsherr took the names Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men who became the closest of friends. Here they enjoy a game of chess – the first of many they would play over their long and evolving history. Photo: Murray Close – TM and ©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

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