MOVIE REVIEW: X-Men: First Class


The summer of sequels and reboots continues.  Though, X-Men: First Class is a horse of a different color.  Not many sequels or reboots go backwards in time to end up adding new characters.  Not many ignore previous movies altogether in an effort to tell its own new origin story.  Not many try so hard to fix the bad convoluted details of past works, yet still offer so many familiar homages to those very same past works.  Finally, not many make themselves superior to everything that came before it.  That's the incredible surprise from X-Men: First Class. 

This movie was supposed to fail.  The third movie of the highly-successful 20th Century Fox series, X-Men: The Last Stand, rubbed fans the wrong way after series director and braintrust, Bryan Singer, bolted to update Superman at Warner Brothers.  However, it still made money.  The same can be said with X-Men Origins: Wolverine from two short years ago.  Nobody minded the Hugh Jackman part, but hated how they portrayed and changed the story around him.  However, it too still made money.  Fox wasn't going to give up on one of its cash cows because X-Men was still a franchise name.  A certain profitable bunch of people were going to come out to the box office regardless of the effort.

Not much hope was given for X-Men: First Class.  At first, it was supposed to be X-Men Origins: Magneto, a prequel origin story for Ian McKellan's great villain to play alongside the Wolverine one.  The hitch was Magneto and Professor X are so linked as former-friends-turned-opponents that you couldn't have one without the other.  Rushed and passed through too many writers, X-Men: First Class ended up with a smaller budget, a predominantly unknown cast with no marketable stars, an extremely short ten-month shooting schedule for an effects-based movie, and terrible pre-release marketing buzz.

The glimmer of hope came in the open-minded creativity that was brought together for X-Men: First Class.  Bringing back Singer as a producer and story contributor was the first step because the decision was then made to go with a 1960's-set origin story for the whole series, intending to set things right and wash out the bad vibes of the last two films.  The second was Matthew Vaughn's "return" as a director to the series.  He was originally supposed to replace Singer for X-Men: Last Stand five years ago but was bumped by Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour series).

Riding on his 2010 success, Kick-Ass, Vaughn brought in different writers (those who also put together Thor after working on TV's Fringe andTerminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to create an edginess and tone not seen in the series.  X-Men: First Class takes the Batman Begins route to ignore old history and the Star Trek route of going to the very beginning with a fresh young cast.  The end result is utterly fantastic, despite all its hurdles to get here.

The movie opens retelling (from 2000's original X-Men) the 1944 manifestation of young German Erik Lensherr's mutant powers of magnetism when he is separated from his parents upon entering a concentration camp.  The new wrinkle comes from a Nazi scientist (Kevin Bacon, relishing a real villain role suited to him for a change) that observes him and then begins to conduct experiments trying to tap into his unique power.  At the same time, we see a young psychic Charles Xavier meet the blue orphan shape-shifter Raven and take her into his home to live.

Fast-forward to 1962, a time when mutants exist, but are unknown to the world public.  A grown-up Erik (Michael Fassbender of 300 and Inglourious Basterds) is traveling the world hunting for that same scientist that ruined his life.  That scientist turns out to be Sebastian Shaw, a fellow powerful mutant that is using government influence on both sides to provoke the U.S. and Russia into nuclear war.  With Raven (recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone) at his side, Charles (James McAvoy of Wanted and Atonement) is now a skirt-chasing genetics grad student at Oxford.  One of the skirts he chases turns out to be chasing him instead.  She's Moira McTaggert (Bridesmaids's Rose Byrne), a U.S. CIA agent looking to recruit him as an expert on genetic mutation to help investigate the mysterious Shaw and his entourage, spearheaded by the enchanting telepath and diamond-skinned Emma Frost (January Jones from TV's Mad Men).

In helping the CIA's mission to apprehend and stop Shaw, Charles meets Erik and saves his life.  A mutual respect is formed and they grow to understand and challenge each other's differing points of view on the growing mutant risk surrounding them.  Charles believes that helping the government will show that mutants are not all bad and can stand for good, but Erik is wary of government involvement and fears inevitable persecution of mutants by humans for their physical differences.  They work together recruiting a team of young mutants that can combat Shaw's team in hopes to prevent him from sparking a nuclear war (as advertised, during the Cuban Missile Crisis).

If you know your X-Men history, you know where this drama is heading.  Much like Star Wars- Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, you know you're going to see the end of friendships, physical losses, a change in the balance of power, the fall of a hero, and the rise of a villain (only way better than that movie, to the point where George Lucas can learn a lesson in how to cover this much story in one movie instead of three).  Even if you know the ending coming, the bond created between Charles and Erik is completely tangible and well crafted.  Even if some of the connecting parts in the movie don't all work, this pairing is unquestionably powerful and fascinating to watch.

James McAvoy adds new shades and layers to a part that used to be all about looking and sounding intelligent from a wheelchair.  Michael Fassbender is even better than that.  His dark transition and flirtation with being good instead is entirely convincing through his enigmatic performance.  He makes his case to be James Bond someday with his suaveness and smolder (watch out Daniel Craig).  Together, these two future stars carry the film to intellectual and emotional heights only hinted at in the few scenes we ever had with just Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart from previous films.

That feel of a James Bond film is a great comparison.  X-Men: First Class roots itself in the the 1960's time period from top to bottom.  Through its continent-hopping story, the impeccable period fashion and production design, old-school technology, and portrayal of the time's growing social and political changes, the movie nails that feel of a Sean Connery James Bond film that just happens to culminate in superheroes.  It's perfectly appropriate to say that what makes it old makes it fresh, in watching a movie without laptops, cell phones, or flat-screen (let alone color) televisions for a change.

X-Men: First Class crafts this engaging story, spy-film look, and retro style with enough action and tricks to impress those still looking for a comic book movie.  Fans of the previous films will love the nods and allusions to the comics and the modern future that is to come from this origin.  The big question becomes what Fox is going to do next to follow (or also screw) this up.  Do they use this movie to start over and build to the present or do they rush together a modern sequel?  Let's hope they stay right here in the past.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF BEING THE BETTER MAN-- The divisive central conflict of opinion by which our characters take sides is on the view of mutants' place in the world.  In this movie, the metaphor/description of a "better man" is used (and played prominently in the trailer and ads).  Charles believes that being the better man is about taking the high and noble road for good because of their innate gifts, whereas Erik believes that, because of their genetic superiority, mutants already are the better men in the superlative sense.  In their back-and-forth, there are many reasons why both men are right and also wrong at various points of their differing endeavors.  Heath Ledger's Joker said it best to his foil, Batman: "I think you and I are destined to do this forever."  Charles and Erik will debate their sides for years to come and this origin film lays it out perfectly.

LESSON #2: THE FIGHT FOR EQUAL RIGHTS-- Those who have followed the comic book (or even the weaker movies) at any point in its near-50-year history knows that X-Men has always been a thinly-veiled metaphor on the social issues of equal rights and the acceptance of diversity.  Being set in the turbulent early 1960s, this new film paints this comparison better than any of the other films combined.  An engaging amount of time is spent showing mutant characters' acceptance or insecurity with their differences to humans, both physical and psychological.

LESSON #3: VIOLENCE VERSUS NONVIOLENCE-- Another obvious and intentional social comparison X-Men has always made is how Xavier and Magneto mirror the opposite views of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X of the 1960's civil rights movement.  Xavier and MLK believed that cooperation, social change from within, and nonviolence were the routes to acceptance.  Oppositely, Magneto and Malcolm X share a more militant and forceful approach to combat bigotry and racism.  Their opposing doctrines are formulated and planted with this origin story and done sympathetically to show that both approaches has a time and a place.