‘X-Men: First Class’: New mutation

June 6, 2011

I’ve written several times about how bored I am with comic-book movies, how tired and formulaic the whole genre has become – and how discouraging it is to be facing a summer full of them.

Now, having said that, I’ll admit that I was completely jazzed by “X-Men: First Class,” the best X-Men movie since the second one. Some would call this the fifth X-Men movie but I don’t count the Wolverine monstrosity that seemed so completely unrelated to what Bryan Singer and, yes, Brett Ratner did in the first three.

Matthew Vaughan’s prequel – another origin story – takes its starting point from the same moment as Bryan Singer’s 2000 “X-Men”: the young Erik Lehnsherr in a Nazi concentration camp, being separated from his parents, unleashing his powers to control metal before being knocked unconscious.

But this film sticks with Erik, as he becomes an object of interest to a scientist in the camp (Kevin Bacon), who wants to learn about Erik’s powers – and who shoots his mother in front of young Erik to get him to unleash them.

From there, we jump forward almost 20 years, to 1962. While a now-grown Erik (played by the compelling Michael Fassbender) travels the globe, searching for the man who killed his mother, another mutant, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is finishing his degree at Oxford – and being recruited by a CIA agent, Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), to help her find and fight a threat presented by a millionaire named Sebastian Shaw (the name Bacon’s character has taken on).

Shaw, it seems, is in league with the Russians – and this is the height of the Cold War. McTaggart infiltrated Shaw’s special Hellfire Club in Las Vegas and saw some mutant craziness involving Shaw, telepath Emma Frost (January Jones) and an American general – though no one at the CIA will believe her wild stories.

So she brings Xavier and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a mutant with shape-shifting abilities, to CIA headquarters and lets them do their thing. The CIA subsequently takes Xavier on the mission to capture Shaw and his crew; the mission fails but it brings Xavier together with Lehnsherr and the two become friends.

Though Shaw escapes, it’s obvious that the CIA needs Xavier and his team of good mutants to help battle the bad mutants. When the CIA balks, one CIA executive (Oliver Platt) agrees to bring them aboard and gives them a facility at which to train.

Even as Xavier and Lehnsherr begin locating and recruiting other mutants to their mission, Shaw is putting his own plan in action: manipulating both the American and Russian governments into a confrontation that will trigger nuclear war and bring about the rise of the mutant elite. In other words, the Cuban missile crisis was engineered by an evil mutant.

There’s a lot at play here, in a movie that runs not quite 2:15. (A word of warning: You can leave when the credits start; unlike the “Iron Man” and “Thor” films, there’s no post-credits teaser, which provoked an angry “Awww” from the audience with which I saw the film.)

Yet Vaughn (who brought a lot of style but not much intelligence to “Kick-Ass”) keeps things moving fast enough that, while the thematic concerns (such as the notion of the victim of the Nazis who becomes a proponent of the idea of the über-mensch) may strike you as wrong-headed while you’re watching, they shouldn’t spoil your viewing but provide food for thought afterward.

(I have a friend who is upset at the notion that Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, would utter the phrase, “Never again,” even as he becomes the kind of monster he has been hunting. Offensive, agreed – but hardly reason to condemn the entire film.)

That whole us-vs.-them theme – the mutants who want to help the humans, the humans who treat them as monsters and want to destroy them – has been the basis of the X-Men series since the comic books began in the 1960s. Vaughn’s film returns it to its roots, using the Xavier-Magneto friendship as the vehicle with which to stage the argument of whether mutants should be helping or trying to enslave the puny humans.

Thanks to McAvoy and Fassbender, those characters do take on weight and depth. The fact that the film is set in the 1960s allows for a certain amount of silliness to the “groovy” design and fashions (though, in fact, it seems a couple of years early for anyone to use the word “groovy” or give off the Swinging London vibe).

What can I say? The best kind of movies sweep you up and allow you to wallow in their reality without provoking giggles or sneers. I wasn’t expecting much from “X-Men: First Class” and came away much more satisfied than I expected. What more do I need?

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