X-Men: First Class *** ½
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.
Written by: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn & Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer.
Starring: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), January Jones (Emma Frost), Álex González (Janos Quested / Riptide), Jason Flemyng (Azazel), Zoë Kravitz (Angel Salvadore), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy / Beast), Caleb Landry Jones (Sean Cassidy / Banshee), Edi Gathegi (Armando Muñoz / Darwin), Lucas Till (Alex Summers / Havok), Oliver Platt (Man In Black Suit), Bill Milner (Young Erik).
X-Men: First Class sets up what is to become the biggest rivalry in the X-Men universe. It lets us see Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), before he has become Professor X (before he has even gone bald or become paralyzed from the waist down), who will preach tolerance and peaceful co-existence between mutants and humans. It lets us see Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) before he becomes Magneto, and preaches mutant superiority and the destruction of the human race. As we have long known, these two were once friends. For the first time in the movies, X-Men: First Class lets us see that, and what leads to the split.
The movie opens with a young Eric being led into the Concentration Camps during WWII. He is Jewish, and in the agony of being separated from his parents, he freaks out, and seemingly bends a metal gate with his mind. This catches the attention of a Nazi scientist Sebastian (Kevin Bacon), who brings Eric in and has him try and move a coin with his mind. He cannot do it, until Sebastian brings in Eric’s mother and shoots her in the head. Then Eric moves not only the coin, but everything made of metal anywhere close to him. Sebastian has his key for tapping into Eric’s power – pain and anger. At this same time, we first meet a young Charles, who comes downstairs in his mansion, and sees his mother in the kitchen – which is odd because his mother doesn’t cook. He soon realizes that this is not his mother, but another mutant – Raven (who will become Mystique). He is excited that there is someone different like him out there.
Most of the action though takes place in the 1960s, around the Cuban missile crisis. Eric has taken to tracking down Nazis, with his main target being Sebastian, and Charles has become involved with the CIA, who is also tracking Sebastian because of his strange friends and powers. The CIA wants a team to counter Sebastian – and eventually Eric will meet Charles and become a kind of co-leader of the team, most of whom are still teenagers, who Charles tracks with the aid of a machine made by young genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who has a secret of his own.
To a certain extent, X-Men: First Class suffers a little from what all superhero origin movies suffer from – the fact that the film has to explain everyone’s powers when they introduce a new mutant. But, for the most part, the film avoids this problem by putting together a new of mutant recruiting montage that introduces everyone and their powers quickly and easily. This is not like the recent Thor that had to spend so much time introducing the characters and their powers that there was little time left over for the actual story. If anything, X-Men: First Class has too much story, not the other way around.
The film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who you may remember was the original choice to replace Bryan Singer when he left to make Superman Returns before the third X-Men movie. Because of creative differences, Vaughn left that movie, but considering fan reaction to that film, I guess the studio decided this time to trust that Vaughn knows what he is doing. And he does. This film is fast paced, and rather fun. McAvoy was an excellent choice for a young Charles Xavier, and Fassbender, one of the best actors anywhere in the world right now, obviously relishes his chance to play Magneto. Yet the movie takes its time, allows these characters and the others to become people, defined more than just by their superpowers. In Kevin Bacon, the film has an excellent villain – someone to play off brilliantly. Yes, the plot is rather silly if you sit down and think about it, but in the context of the movie and the universe it has created, it makes sense.
For the most part, I am suffering a little bit from superhero fatigue. Every year, we seem to get more and more superhero movies – this summer has already seen Thor and this movie, and still has Green Lantern and Captain America coming up. That is because, for the most part, these movies all have the same basic plot outline, and the same characters, even if their powers are different of course. Yet, for whatever reason, X-Men: First Class sucked me into this world like few superhero movies have been able to do in the past few years. No, it does not redefine the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did. Yet, it is stellar example of how good the genre can still be.