Movie Review: X-Men: First Class
The Charlotte Observer
“X-Men: First Class” is the rare superhero film that lives up to its subtitle. This origin story offers complex psychological battles, satisfying special effects, hints of romance unconsummated (always the most touching kind) and roots in real historical events, from the Nazi deportation of the Jews to the Cuban Missile Crisis quelled by President Kennedy in November 1962.
Best of all, this prequel deals with questions raised by the series that blazed brightly in its first two installments and fizzled out in 2006 with the bloated “Last Stand.”
What led to the hate/respect relationship between Professor Xavier and Magneto? Why did Mystique change sides, leaving the assimilationist Xavier and joining the loose cannon who wants to subjugate ordinary humanity? How did the professor, who’s spry and quick in this prequel, become paralyzed?
Credible answers are here, attached to old-fashioned melodrama of the best kind. Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake,” “Kick-Ass”) directs this like an early Bond movie, full of experimental submarines or planes and gorgeous women who strike with deadly force. (The first Bond film, “Doctor No,” premiered in London nine days before the Cuban Missile Crisis began.)
The movie begins with formative events in the 1940s. A Nazi geneticist (Kevin Bacon) tries to get Erik Lehnsherr to use his powers over metal in a death camp for Jews. When the future Magneto fails, the scientist executes his mother.
Meanwhile, young Xavier convinces his phenomenally wealthy family to take in shape-shifting Mystique. The two remain inseparable until Oxford, where he becomes a professor of genetics and she searches for a life purpose.
The grown-up Xavier and Lehnsherr (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) bond loosely when they realize that the geneticist – a mutant who now calls himself Sebastian Shaw – is infiltrating American and Soviet military circles. Shaw and fellow mutants want to trigger a nuclear war that will wipe out ordinary humans and leave them in control of the planet.
“First Class” (which does not carefully follow the comics’ story of that name) makes its greatest impact when it explores shifting loyalties between Xavier and Lehnsherr. One is motivated by a desire for peace, one by a thirst for revenge; as they struggle to master their powers and help each other, we realize this friendship will be doomed. Lehnsherr, brutally used by a regime that preached racial superiority and world domination, will eventually seek to establish those things.
The young cast ranges in quality from introspective Jennifer Lawrence as the troubled Mystique to inert January Jones as diamond-hard telepath Emma Frost. But most of the actors live their roles, and Fassbender (Rochester in the last “Jane Eyre”) is superb as the wolflike, undisciplined assassin.
Vaughn, who grew up loving B movies of the 1980s and early ’90s, has filled “First Class” with actors from them: Michael Ironside, James Remar, Ray Wise, Rade Serbedzija. He has brought in veteran John Dykstra, Oscar-winner for the 1977 “Star Wars” and “Spider-Man 2,” to deliver effects that give a modern thrill but still look like they’re part of the historical period.
Some small details seem inauthentic: Nobody wore miniskirts in 1962, and songs heard here hadn’t come out in the States. (Does nobody research such things?) McAvoy and Fassbender don’t remotely sound as though they could grow up to become Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
But the big ideas and battles come off thoughtfully and handsomely. For once, there’s no post-credit sequence to hint at a sequel, a middle-ground continuance between this fine new “X-Men” and the older ones. But for once, there’s a chance such a sequel would be worth our time.