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Rapid Review: X-Men: First Class

June 5, 2011

In a summer filled with sequels that are really “re-boots” of franchises (ahem, Pirates of the Caribbean), we now have the origin tale of X-Men’s two greatest faction leaders and teachers.   Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) are really two sides of the same coin.  They have the same ultimate goal: to provide a haven for mutants and to end the discrimination and ignorance that surrounds their mysterious powers.  Yet, their methods and motives are vastly different.

It's Retro, okay...

It’s a tough task to provide an audience with a new story about characters they already feel they understand so well, especially since the outcome of this unusual friendship is already known.   Yet, director Matthew Vaughn has not just “re-booted” the franchise, he’s changed its mood and tone, as well.  This movie is less action-packed, sci-fi, superhero film and more of a character study of its two leads and the ever-“mutating” world that they inhabit.  It doesn’t hurt that First Class is conveniently set in the early 1960s, at a time when the Cold War is already shrouding much of the planet in a perpetual state of fear and unknowing. 

The movie opens in WWII as young Erik is forced to confront an evil Auschwitz camp doctor, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who wants him to harness his unusual powers.  This encounter and experience will haunt him and mold in him an intense desire for revenge.  Here lies the key to his different scope and tactics from Charles. 

The dastardly Shaw and his partner and sidekick, the diamond-skinned mutant Emma Frost (January Jones), prove elusive prey for Erik, who has made it his life’s mission to track them down in revenge for Shaw’s crimes in Auschwitz.

every bad guy needs a babe-magnet "lair"

Meanwhile, Charles Xavier’s rise to the top of the academic world is hindered by an unusual encounter with an intriguing CIA agent (Oliver Platt) and a future  life-long friend, Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne).  These agents want to form a league of mutants whose aim would be to protect the nation against rogue agents who are of the same mutant persuasion.  Fight fire with fire, of course.  Chief on the list  of public enemies are the evil Dr. Shaw (who has intriguing powers of his own) and Emma Frost, who have been working to steal vital Soviet intelligence. 

Knowing the major events of the early 1960s, you can guess where this is headed.  As Erik and Charles’ s lives connect with a common purpose (yet, as always, with very different end goals and motives), they are joined by the young mutants who make up the “First Class” of the title, which include Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee and Havok.  The most prominent two members, however, are the young Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) who takes the nickname Mystique, and CIA agent and undercover mutant Hank/The Beast (Nicholas Hoult). 

Fassbender's Erik/Magneto and McAvoy's Dr. Xavier/Professor X

The movie itself is a surprising success on an emotional level.  There are explosions that rock the theater, tense moments and plenty of eye candy  to be had in X-Men: First Class, but director Vaughn knows that the most effective tension relies on the actors’ abilities to portray solid, tangible emotions and to form relationships that matter.  We must understand that there are real consequences for all these lofty and dangerous missions.

James McAvoy is a likeable and earnest Charles Xavier, but despite being at the forefront of the action, he has little to do besides look convincingly like he’s trying to drill a hole inside various bad guys’ brains. 

It doesn’t help his case that Michael Fassbender is a master scene-stealer, and his intensity burns through the screen as Erik/Magneto.  Erik’s journey is the one with the most punch and the most pathos, and Vaughn wisely knows it, making him the center of each scene he’s in.

January Jones is more vacant than chilling as Emma Frost;  what is most disappointing is that the film  appears to focus more on fleshing out her costumes than her character.  Let’s hope that’s an editing casualty rather than a conscious decision. Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert is also underused, but more understandably so, since she’s a mere human surrounded by a plethora of flashy mutants.

 Of the “younger” actors, it is Nicholas Hoult as Beast, the science genius trapped in the body of a blue, furry predator, and Jennifer Lawrence as the blatantly honest, yet deceptively talented Mystique who make the most emotional impact.

young mutants in love

Still, the stars of the show here are Fassbender and Lawrence, make no bones about it.  Fassbender oozes charm and danger in equal measure – almost casually.   He is literally and figuratively magnetic.  Pun entirely intended.    As Erik/Magneto, his power to persuade is undeniable.  It’s easy to see what drives his followers.  He has the meatiest and most challenging character to portray, and he captures Lehnsherr’s intelligence and conflicting instincts without veering into mustache-twisting territory. 

Lawrence, as the hurting and morally torn Raven/Mystique, gives the one-note portrayal of her character in the previous films a convincing pathos and moving back story.  She is trapped between her desire to help mutant-kind and her need to be accepted in her true form.  Her eyes say it all.

One minor quibble would be the apparent differences between events in this film and events in the main series.  If we would believe the ending of First Class to be canon, there are some gaps that need to be filled in (most notably some conflicting points in X-Men: The Last Stand).  I’m sure some future screenwriter will set it all straight in the end.

yeah, we're...recruiting...yeah...

Overall, X-Men: First Class is a winner thanks to a deft screenplay, a forceful but earnest director and some extremely talented actors who make the most of their environment.   This turn towards more of a “spy games” feel as opposed to true sci-fi fits the X-Men universe and characters well.  Let’s hope future films in the franchise give the minor players a chance to take center stage.  I have a feeling there’s much more intrigue and chaos to come. 

Overall Grade: B +

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