With X-Men: Apocalypse coming up later this month (and me working on my review for it), why not dip into the past to see what I thought of the first in the “Young Mutants” series?
The more things change, the more things stay the same; X-Men: First Class may be set in the 60’s, but it’s themes of war and prejudice, along with it’s call for tolerance, are still relevant today. What makes this movie more than just another comic book story is how they take these ideas and weave them into a truly entertaining film. Hey, they even make the old blue-and-yellow suits look classy.
It’s 1944, and Erik Lehnsherr has been sent to a concentration camp with his parents. His anguish at the thought of being separated from his mother causes him to tap into powers that cause the metal fencing separating them to warp. He’s shuttled off to be studied by Sebastian Shaw, with horrible consequences. Meanwhile, telepath Charles Xavier is growing up in the lap of luxury, with everything a child could want, including best friend/adopted sister Raven. Cut to the 1960s, and while Charles is wrapping up college studies, Erik is on a manhunt for the Nazis who destroyed his life. When Charles and Erik come together to protect the world from Shaw, their friendship is tested because of their differing beliefs. Charles holds out hope that humans will ultimately embrace mutants and they can all live together in harmony. Erik, after his time in the camps, has nothing but disdain for a race he believes will try to destroy anything different.
As a comic book mythology, the X-Men began in the 60s in response to the decades fight for civil rights. But with all the strides we have made, there are still many areas of prejudice, hatred and bigotry, which makes X-Men: First Class not only a rip-roaring ride of a film, but a study in how people behave when faced with things they don’t understand. But this film doesn’t hit you over the head with it, or have these themes feel forced, they’re a natural outcome of the movie’s storyline. The actors work well together and give believable performances (unbelievable abilities notwithstanding). I did have to smile a bit at January Jones’ Emma Frost; such a beautiful woman, still in a Mad Men’s world. Her performance left me wanting to know more about her character, there was so much going on behind her eyes, yet she never lost her cool. With a name like Frost I guess it’s to be expected. Kevin Bacon gives Sebastian Shaw real teeth, and while he does a great job of letting the audience know why Shaw is doing what he’s doing, Bacon is obviously having such a good time with playing the bad guy that you can’t help but follow him down to Armageddon.
I’m a huge fan of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. And you, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, are not them. But that’s okay, there’s room enough for all. Because in X-Men: First Class we’re not watching the fully formed Professor X and Magneto, we’re watching the story of how they came to be who they are. For this, McAvoy and Fassbender are wonderfully cast in the roles of friends who will become the bitterest of enemies. It’s a blast to see McAvoy’s Charles Xavier at university getting plowed and hitting on women with the same line over and over. And Erik, before Magneto, really had me feeling for him even with his chaos theory of retribution. It’s a cold, dead heart that can’t understand why Magneto became who he is, and Fassbender’s ability to portray a man torn between his love for his friends and his merciless anger is impressive. Jennifer Lawrence, as Raven/Mystique, gives a performance that let me know her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone wasn’t a fluke. She’s a girl who can’t see herself as beautiful unless she disguises herself. A sentiment that will ring true to may teen and post-teen viewers. In fact, Lawrence’s scenes with Nicholas Hoult’s Howard/Beast when they talk about beauty and acceptance are some of the most touching in the film.
The “oh, wow!” stuff? Oh yeah, it’s here. The special effects are seamless. Hank’s feet, Raven’s shifting ability and Azazel’s…well, his whole self look organic and seem an integral part of their bodies. The most amazing to me was Angel’s wings, that could go from a cool looking tattoo to fully realized appendages in sinuous movements that were so believable I wanted to reach out and touch them. The art direction gives an authentic feel to the scenes, from a 1944 Germany concentration camps to the swingin’ kids of 1966 (though I thought it was cool that even in the 60s Charles and Erik dressed much like they do now. Nice touch.) And while the action sometimes moves too fast to get a grip on what’s going on where, it’s all crystal clear and staged perfectly.
What’s not to like about X-Men: First Class? No Stan Lee cameo. Sorry, Stan fans. But if I’m being honest, I was enjoying myself too much to even notice. In fact, only while tapping this out did I remember that Stan the Man usually makes an appearance, and ZOMG, did I miss it? Nope. He’s said that there’s no cameo for him in this film. Never fear, there are a few cameos that will have genre fans applauding. No, I won’t be that reviewer and spoil ‘em. You want your movie experience watered down, google away, I can’t do it. Let’s just say the cameos are fun but don’t take focus away from the movie you’re watching. Oh, and if you’re someone (like me) that stays through the credits to see the bonus scene, you can leave as they roll if you like. There’s no scene at the end of the credits that teases at more to come. What, Marvel isn’t giving you enough with The Hulk, The Avengers, Captain America, a Spidey re-boot and Iron Man 3? Seriously? Yeah, I hoped for a teaser scene too. But with X-Men: First Class, there’s so much to love that a bonus scene would feel like overkill. Almost.
When Eric/Magneto looks at Charles and says “Never. Again.”, it’s not a cliched use of a powerful call to remembrance, but a heartbreaking expression of how we as human beings still have so much further to go in order to achieve true tolerance and acceptance. Go see X-Men: First Class for the glorious popcorn blockbuster fun of it all, then sit back with your friends and talk about how this film addresses important issues that much of the mainstream media tries to avoid.