X-Men: First Class

2011, 20th Century Fox

Running Time: 132 mins

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, Stardust)

Starring: James McAvoy (Wanted, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, 300) Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)

Reviewed by Art Schmidt

“Killing will not bring you peace, my friend,” the young Charles Xavier says in the X-Men: First Class trailer.  “Peace was never an option,” replies a young Erik Lehnsherr.  Michael Fassbender’s tortured Erik appears emotionally and mentally ancient next to James McAvoy’s comparatively  innocent Charles, and the two actors make a great pairing for this bold experiment in pre-booting a franchise many considered stale and washed up after the X-Men Origins: Wolverine mis-fire.

And of course peace isn’t an option!  Peaceful options might make for good historical dramas, but this is a comic book movie!  I don’t believe I’d shell out ten bucks to see the Beast frolicking through a field of dandelions, or Azazel teleporting from tree to tree picking passion fruit.  Never fear, there is action aplenty.  And most of it even makes a fair amount of sense.

The baddies in this story are led by Sebastian Shaw, a mutant who is able to absorb kinetic energy and use it in various ways, including keeping himself young.  Kevin Bacon seems physically small and out-of-place in some of his scenes, but he wears the self-assured villain well, and the look in his eye says he easily (happily!) knows more about being evil than you ever will.  January Jones plays his right-hand lady Emma Frost, the perfect combination of sexy aura and stone cold stare; Betty Draper/Francis would be proud .  Azazel and Riptide round out Shaw’s cadre of cads, bent on starting World War III and steering the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Charles and Erik meet as two sides of a common goal: the foiling of Shaw’s grand plans (before either of them know what said plans really are).  Charles naturally wants to avoid any conflict or harm to mankind; Erik just wants to exact cold-blooded vengeance, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.  The two become unlikely teammates and friends with a common enemy.

Unfortunately, the one thing that X-Men falls prey to is what seems to affect most all movies of this sub-genre; namely, they try to fit what a monthly mag spends years building over large, sprawling story arcs that consume sometimes two to three years and thousands of beautifully inked pages into a couple of measly hours.  Granted, fans don’t want a movie that only covers a single issue of a mag, but the studios don’t need to cram two decades worth of comic treasure into a single movie, either.

Tony Stark goes from playboy to crusader to secret identity to exposing himself as Iron Man in one movie.  Really?  Couldn’t save that for the second one?  And over the course of two movies, The Hulk is born, rages, and is then brought under control (if we’re to understand the scene at the end of the second movie where Banner self-induces the Hulk transformation).  And in Thor, the title character goes from rebellious son of Odin to outcast to human champion to redemption and then back into dad’s good graces all in the space of one hundred fifteen minutes.

Other films suffer from the same fate.  Spiderman ran his course in three spectacular films, and apparently there’s nothing more the geniuses at Sony could come up with.  Hence the forthcoming ‘reboot’ of a franchise that wasn’t even ten years old.  Seriously?  X-Men fell to the same fate: three movies in and Professor X, Jean Grey, Mystique and Cyclops were all dead or powerless.  Oh well, that was fun.  Next!  It’s as if the major studios can’t see past trilogies.

Which brings me back to XFC.  It’s a good movie, but even for a comic fan it’s hard to swallow the brief friendship between the main characters as being more than that; a brief friendship.  As a key part of the overall X-Men mythology, these two are supposed to be the best of friends, torn apart by their ultimate differences of opinion on the role of mutants in human society.  But if you follow the timeline roughed out by the dialogue of the movie, they aren’t together for more than a couple of months.  If you go by the feeling that the scenes portray, it feels like maybe a bit more.   And then at the end, they are almost where the first X-Men movie picks up.  Not a good way to pave the road for more prequels!

But perhaps I am being too harsh.  The devil is in the details, and I’m perseverating on them.  The movie overall is very good, well thought-out and better executed than X3, and most of the details do play into the larger X-Men world.   Jennifer Lawrence is great as Raven/Mystique, and the relationship with Charles eventually reveals itself as a perfect counter-point to his claim that he is working to benefit all mutants, and she plays the slow shift from Charles to Erik with skill.  The movie also introduces several mutants ‘new’ to the big screen, and shows us the earlier lives of some of other favorites from movies past.  I don’t miss my ten bucks in the least.

****SPOILER ALERT!!!****

Word to the Wise: Hugh Jackman makes a fantastic cameo that’s almost worth the price of admission in and of itself!  And don’t bother staying through the credits, this superhero movie bucks the trend of the golden scene at the tail end of the movie.  Save yourself five minutes and book when the credits start to roll.