X-Men: First Class (2011)

17 Jan

xmen first class cast group

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The X-Men have always been kind of an interesting band of superheroes because instead of one hero, we have many. We have a group of interesting, likable characters with some pretty neat superpowers to follow adventures with in the comic book franchise in their name, the animated TV series, and the four “X-Men” action movies. For those who don’t know, the X-Men are mutants—genetically altered people with a special power, kind of like the new evolution of man.

With all superhero tales, the origin story is always the most crucial, although we’ve already gotten a movie featuring the origin story of the mutant Wolverine (the one with the metallic razor-sharp “fingernails”) and that didn’t turn out well with most movie audiences. So now, we have “X-Men: First Class,” which follows the origin story of Professor X and Magneto. For those who don’t know, both characters are teachers for the other mutants…but on opposing sides. One side wants mutants to live alongside normal people, the other wants to destroy the humans.

I know, we’ve seen how all of that goes in the first three “X-Men” movies. But if I’m going to write the review for “X-Men: First Class,” certain details have to be acknowledged.

“X-Men: First Class” opens in a Nazi concentration camp, during World War II, where we see a young boy named Erik Lehnsherr (later to be known as Magneto). The Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) learns of the boy’s newly developed mutant powers as a telepath—able to read minds and manipulate objects, particularly metal, without touching them—and kills his mother as a way of showing that anger can bring his powers to life. Years later, in the early 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is a young man bent on vengeance against Shaw.

We also see the young Charles Xavier (later to be known as Professor X) and his stepsister Raven (later to be known as Mystique). Xavier (James McAvoy) is a telepath who has his own theory of mutants in this world, hence the nickname “Professor,” while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is a shape-shifter whose true form is a blue-skinned creature with golden eyes, but takes the form of an attractive blonde. (And she’s probably actually a lot older than she looks, as a line of dialogue hints at later on.)

OK, this is why I hate reviewing superhero origin stories that are released years after the first few movies. I bet so many readers of this know who these people are and what powers they have. But bear with me; I’m getting to the story.

A CIA agent named Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) needs the help of Xavier, with his expertise of mutation. It turns out Shaw is assembling his own team of mutants, and he himself is a mutant—a telepath who can absorb any sort of energy, even from a live grenade. Shaw’s intention is to launch hundreds of nuclear missiles to strike Russia and launch a nuclear war, eliminating the humans and putting mutants in the lead. Xavier agrees to help stop him, as he and Erik meet each other and form as allies, among other recruits that include a young scientist with hands for feet and a taxi driver who learns to adapt, hence the name…Darwin.

“X-Men: First Class” is about as good as an “X-Men” movie can get, which is to say it’s the best one in the franchise. The setup is effective, the acting is nice, it’s proficiently made, and the action—especially the climax, surprisingly—is well-staged and pretty intense. The heroes are admirable and appealing, with the exception of one whose intentions run deeper than the others would think, and the villain is effectively ruthless. All I’ve mentioned feature elements that good superhero movies should feature.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have problems. While continuity connected with the other “X-Men” movies isn’t a major problem in the first half, there are moments in the second half that don’t seem possible, given that you’ve seen the other movies. (I won’t give those errors away.) Actually, that’s a minor criticism—there are only a few big errors, meaning less than smaller ones, making it somewhat passable. Also, as much as I love Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, she doesn’t have much to do with the character of Mystique, with the exception of full-body blue, scaly makeup some of the time (which I have to admit is strangely attractive—shut up). I feel like her character was underdeveloped and I don’t feel much of Lawrence coming through. Another problem, and let’s face it now—some of the mutant powers you see in this movie are pretty silly.

But for the stuff that doesn’t work in “X-Men: First Class,” there are things in the movie that really do. For one thing, it’s nice to see Professor X and Magneto, before they were known as such, in their beginnings and as allies, no less. The relationship between these two is interesting, compelling, and always risky. In some ways, they’re on the same mission to stop Shaw from starting World War III, but in other ways, they have different views on how to handle things, given their abilities. Xavier believes that mankind and…mutantkind (?) can live in peace, while Erik is taken over by his violent nature and believes that it doesn’t matter if this nuclear war is prevented—it will happen either way—as long as he exacts his revenge on Shaw. Because of their differing ethics, it makes it more tragic that their friendship will not end well, to say the least. James McAvoy is likable as Xavier, and Michael Fassbender is excellent—Fassbender has a forceful screen presence that practically demands you to watch him for two hours, and that’s a sign of a great actor.

The villain is an interesting, truly cold-blooded antagonist, and played by Kevin Bacon with efficient sliminess. The character is interesting because he takes different sides in order to make sure that he comes out on top, no matter what the case may be. And as a mutant, he has his own insane ideas of how the idea of man and mutant should be handled. In that case, he’s a respectable role model for Erik, who has pretty much the same ideas. “Unfortunately,” Erik states, “You killed my mother.” So it’s not hard to see where this will go, if you haven’t seen the other movies—it’s no question that Shaw is the early Magneto (and even has the same ridiculous headgear to keep his mind intact).

Also, there are training sequences in which Xavier teaches the other mutants, brought in to become the alliance against Shaw and his group, to control their powers. These are also fun to watch and well-edited—it makes a bold choice in showing them back and forth and surprisingly works.

The climax is extremely well-done. The scale seems huge here. It really does feel like a lot is at stake as all this madness is occurring. And the best part—we’re involved. We actually care about what’s happening. The pacing is carefully done to make sure we don’t miss anything. This is one of the best action climaxes I’ve seen in a superhero movie with an epic feel and impressive special effects. What follows are heartbreaking decisions, but is expected, given the knowledge from the other movies.

“X-Men: First Class” runs two hours and 10 minutes—it doesn’t feel that long. This is an exciting superhero flick that I would actually like to see more stories based upon. And I don’t just mean watching the first three movies again—there’s another story with the young versions of these characters to be found. They just need to find it. I’d be excited to see it.

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