Friday, June 3, 2011

"X-Men: First Class" (2011)

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon
Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stantz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Rated PG-13 - Language, violence, sexual themes
Running Time: 132 Minutes

Going into "X-Men: First Class" I was, understandably, quite worried. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was a flat-out terrible movie, and "X-Men: The Last Stand" was just about as terrible.  There were four "X-Men" movies, and only a 50% success rate.

Imagine the smile on my face, then, when "X-Men: First Class" turned out to be one of the best of the bunch, rivaling "X2: X-Men United" as champ of the franchise.

The film begins in Poland, 1944, as young Erik Lehnsherr and his family are being led into a Nazi concentration camp.  Erik is separated from his family and lashes out, his mutant powers manifesting - Erik can control metals and magnetic fields.  This garners the attention of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who demands that Erik demonstrate his powers once more.  When Erik fails to do so, Shaw murders Erik's mother, causing an outburst from Erik that destroys Shaw's laboratory.

Elsewhere, in New York, young Charles Xavier awakes and finds his mother in the kitchen - but it's not his mother.  Instead, it's a young shapeshifter named Raven who has broken into Xavier's home in search of food.  Xavier takes in the young girl, and years later the two have developed a loving brother-sister relationship.

Flash forward to the 1960s: Charles (James McAvoy) is now in England studying genetics.  His sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has tagged along, frustrated by having to hide her true appearance while her brother uses his gifts to score women at local bars.  Erik (Michael Fassbender), meanwhile, has grown into a vengeful man, tracking down Nazi war criminals and assassinating them wherever he finds them.  Elsewhere, Sebastian Shaw has begun maneuvering the military forces of the United States and the Soviet Union toward war, using his influence to convince the United States to place nuclear missiles in Turkey, and the Soviet Union to put their missiles on the island of Cuba, mere miles from Florida.

Charles is recruited by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) to help her understand genetic mutation after she witnesses the special abilities of Shaw's cohorts Emma Frost (January Jones), 'Riptide' (Alex Gonzalez) and Azazel (Jason Flemng).  McTaggert and Charles join forces with a CIA paranormal division headed by 'The Man in Black' (Oliver Platt) to locate and recruit mutants to help stop Shaw's plans for worldwide destruction.  First among this group is, of course, Erik, who has finally located Shaw after decades of searching and is bent on revenge for the murder of his mother.  Soon enough, Charles and Erik are traveling the world recruiting mutants like Alex Summers (Lucas Till), Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Armando Muniz (Edi Gathegi), who all have special gifts and abilities that make them feared and hated.

This young, inexperienced team of X-Men must deal with a threat that could plunge the world into nuclear war, struggling with the idea of having to save millions of people who would just as soon have them dead.  Why should they dedicate their lives to saving and protecting those that hate and fear them?  All the while, the bond between Charles and Erik grows deeper, but the two men are headed toward a confrontation as they become aware that their ideologies are incompatible, even if their goals are similar.

"X-Men: First Class" is a first-rate superhero flick.  It begins, surprisingly, with footage (and even the same musical score by the late Michael Kamen) from Bryan Singer's original 2000 "X-Men" film, and takes its time setting up its characters and period setting.  In fact, "First Class" is very well paced, especially for a film over 2 hours long, and never feels boring.  Scenes zip by, helped along by peppy dialogue that only falters occasionally, and the action sequences are directed with a sure hand.

The film's themes of bigotry and acceptance can be a little obvious (when Shaw gives his ultimatum to the X-Men, he says they can either stand on their own or be "enslaved", and Vaughn immediately cuts to the only black kid in the group, oy), but for the most part the film avoids getting muddled in its point like "The Last Stand" did.  It also avoids being a godawful prequel, unlike "Wolverine."  Indeed, great attention is paid to the period setting, with no signs of the timeline issues that plagued "Wolverine."

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do excellent jobs stepping into the roles of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, originally played by Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.  Neither one outright apes the elder characters, instead choosing to chart their own paths.  These characters are quite different at the onset than we remember them.  Charles is a womanizer, using his charm and intelligence to pick up women in bars, while Erik is a hot-headed and vicious assassin.  The bond that forms between the two over the course of the film is great, even at the end when they know they have to fight each other, each does so with a mountain of regret.  It truly does help inform the scenes in the earlier films where the two, as old men, treat each other more like long lost brothers than true enemies.

The action sequences in "First Class" are damn cool, especially Shaw's assault on the X-Men's CIA base, and later the confrontation in Cuba as the X-Men race to stop the United States and Soviet forces from annihilating each other and starting World War III.  Vaughn smartly saves his effects dollars for when they really count, setting up a series of smaller action scenes before going all out with a couple of large ones instead of blowing his wad too early.  The climax of the film is a breathless sequence that moves from one challenge to another as the X-Men thwart Shaw's plans only to come face to face with their own differing ideologies, and the fear they instill in regular humans.

"X-Men: First Class" might have a few discrepancies with the other films in the franchise, but these aren't particularly huge nitpicks.  They mostly have to do with the ages of certain characters.  But the film is firmly rooted in the continuity of the franchise, and is not a total reboot of it.  Indeed, several characters and cast members of the previous films make cameo appearances, one of which I won't ruin here but absolutely brought the house down at the theatre and easily garnered the biggest laughs of the entire film.

"First Class" is the good kind of prequel.  It's the kind that tells a great story of its own, making you forget that you know how a lot of these characters end up.  You watch it, and you're intrigued to find out why things turn out the way they do.  Some other big-name franchise prequels fail to do this entirely, but "First Class" is exactly the way a prequel should be done.  It respects the characters and the world, tosses a few winks to the audience, but otherwise goes about its business.

I thought "Thor" was a great entry into the slate of Marvel films, and "X-Men: First Class" easily tops it.  It holds up the ideals of the franchise, exploring themes of bigotry, hatred and fear of those who are different from us, telling a great story with fascinating characters, great performances and first-rate action.  All my worries that "First Class" would be another "Wolverine" have completely evaporated, and I have no problem recommending you head out and see this one.

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