Not Quite Freshman Bio

X-Men: First Class (June 3, 2011)     4/5

Directed by Matthew Vaughn  (20th Century Fox)

I’ll be the first to admit, in the endless spiral of sequels and prequels, I’m just about sick of the modern superhero flick.  And after the purely dumb X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it seemed like a good time to put our favorite mutants to rest.  So imagine my surprise when I saw X-Men: First Class, which is arguably a perfect superhero movie.  Although it offers nothing particularly innovative, this prequel actually provides the story depth and character development of a “real” film, while simultaneously recognizing that it is indeed, a comic book.  It’s everything the previous, darker X-Men trilogy aspired to, but never quite reached.  And of the course, the film Wolverine should’ve been.  Much credit should go to director Matthew Vaughn, whose spirit in the pulpy, violent, and foulmouthed Kick-Ass is transferred here, although the results are obviously not R-rated.

In First Class, the early friendship between good guy Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and bad guy Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is examined, while at the same time, the mutants are plopped into the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, recreating the early X-Men comics of the 1960s.  Mutation has just taken hold of humanity, and few people know about it.  Xavier, a telepath who has a good heart but still loves to party, has just graduated from Oxford and is publishing a thesis on his recent findings of the mutating genome.  Lensherr, meanwhile, is a Jewish mutant who can manipulate metal, and has been spending the last few years of life hunting down those Nazi bastards who killed his parents and performed experiments on him during World World II.  The government soon acquires a need for Xavier’s research when Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who can absorb and redirect energy, plans to use fear from both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. governments to plunge the world into World War III.  The mutants will then take over, led by Shaw’s Hellfire Club.  So Charles, who believes mutants and humans can scientifically cooperate, and Erik, who thinks that humans will only continue to harm and discriminate against mutants, join together to lead the CIA’s “Division X” facility, along with several young mutants, including Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone, who as Raven Darkholme, Charles’ childhood friend, will soon become the villainous Mystique.

It is the transformation of Charles’ allies into enemies that provides the most interesting aspect of the film, and will eventually turn Charles Xavier into hero for humanity Professor X, and Erik Lensherr into supervillain Magneto.  In their respective roles, McAvoy and Fassbender are sensational.  In fact, they may have given some of the best performances in recent memory, NOT just including superhero movies.  Meanwhile, Bacon makes a fabulous return to the screen as a giddily cold villain, complimented on the other side of the good-evil spectrum by Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt, who give fun performances as CIA agents working with the mutants.  Meanwhile, the effects are colorful and enigmatic, something the original X-Men films never quite had.  The 60s nostalgia also comes across quite well, as the scenery and costumes effectively portray a time when any comic book was innovative.  All the while, Henry (not to be confused with Hugh) Jackman’s score booms with drama and suspense. And although these touches are reason enough to get excited about First Class, its strongest aspect, along with the acting, is the message that was carried in the original films.

Should the mutants cooperate with the humans, who will likely only fear and harm them?  Should they accept cures for their unique genes in order to conform to society, rather than be proud of their extraordinary abilities?  It is because of these questions that characters in X-Men: First Class take sides, break friendships, and make bold decisions.  The relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr has often been viewed as a metaphor for that between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.  Although that view is debatable, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are good enough actors that you can see the relevance in these cartoonish stories more clearly than it has ever been shown before.  Yes, this X-Men is a comic-book, in all its cheesy, FX glory, but like the rest of the series, it also offers something for the thinking man, rather than just the excitable preteen.  Just like the humans in Marvel’s universe, the comic book story has evolved.  But as proven by surprises like First Class, the fun and escapism it offers has yet to fade away.

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