June 02, 2011

X-Men: First Class

This prequel is groovy, baby. Very switched on.

Grade: C +

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Matthew Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, and January Jones

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hr. 12 min.

Early in
X-Men: First Class, we discover that the childhood memories of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto extend beyond contorting Jewish ghetto gates with his mind. When Erik is later unable to replicate his magnetic power on command, Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) guns down Erik’s mother in front of the boy.

These patent, commendable efforts to summon sympathy for a future super-villain ignore the irony that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who eventually embraces the same mantra of genetic superiority as his erstwhile Nazi persecutors. And, we mustn’t ignore the sidelong anti-Semitism conjured by this backstory, the portrait of the avenging Jew seeking retribution against the whole of humanity for the past wrongs of a few.

Unfortunately, these and any other profound themes found in X-Men: First Class are mere flotsam in a prequel that is not so much an origin story as a Star Trek-inspired reboot. The guiding core of this chronicle about the original assembling of the titular mutant corps is the friendship-cum-schism between suave, self-confident telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, embracing his Scottish accent) and Erik (Michael Fassbender, struggling to stifle his Irish brogue), long the series’ most intriguing aspect.

They and the rest of their fresh-faced, superhuman recruits are caught in the middle of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, engineered here as a mechanism for World Domination™ by the megalomaniacal Shaw, now sporting a revolving wardrobe of leisure suits, velvet jackets and ascots. Lacquered in hokey ’60s pastiche and historical misappropriation, the film evokes Austin Powers more than James Bond.

There is also an surplus of subplots, principally revolving around the collection of junior X-Men━Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Havok (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Angel (ZoĆ« Kravitz)━written as though they were characters in a Nick at Night sitcom. January Jones channels Shaw’s Hellfire Club henchwoman Emma Frost as a Stepford villain and Rose Byrne, as Moira MacTaggert, the most unconvincing cinematic CIA agent ever, suggests a human with the mutant ability to not be able to act.

On the surface, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass and Layer Cake) seems an inspired choice to revive the Marvel film series. While his special effects scenes possess pop, the campy dialogue, choppy editing and silly set design come uncomfortable close at times to, dare I say, Joel Schumacher territory.

Whole lines of script are predictable before uttered. Location captions feel the need to twice inform us that the obvious image of Red Square is in “Moscow, Russia,” and that an isolated office building is a “Covert CIA Research Base.” When Shaw urges the newbie X-Men to reject a life of “enslavement” to humans, Vaughn cuts directly to a shot of the lone black mutant … just before he becomes the first named character to die. And, it’s hard to take matters seriously when the situation area for U.S. military officials is designed to resemble—perhaps intentionally—the War Room in Dr. Strangelove.

Two relationships salvage X-Men: First Class. First is Charles’ childhood friendship with Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue shapeshifter who battles self-esteem issues over her appearance. More central, however, is the one between Charles and Erik, framed here as X-Men’s version of Isaac and Ishmael. Charles supports peaceful coexistence and understanding with normal humans, while Erik endorses survival of the fittest and casts a wise and wary eye towards man’s inherent violent nature.

Strong performances by McAvoy and Fassbender lend credible emotion to Charles and Erik’s complicated kinship and essentially save X-Men: First Class. Nevertheless, you know a film has problems when a 10-second cameo (you’ll know it when you see it) is its unquestioned highpoint.

Neil Morris

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