Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Comic Book, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Opens locally Friday, June 3rd, 2011 (check for showtimes)
Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon
Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust)
Is "X-Men: First Class" a great movie in the sense that it will win an Academy Award? No. But this prequel to the X-Men Movie Trilogy is a home-run when it comes to story, entertainment value, and sheer fun.
Some Background. It's a no-brainer that fans of the X-Men or comic books in general will love "X-Men: First Class." But this film is also that rare example of a comic book film that is accessible to those who aren't familiar with the story or the series. Because it's a prequel, it starts somewhat at the beginning, and takes time to explain what's going on. The success of many recent Marvel Comics movies (such as Spider-Man 2, the X-Men Trilogy, Iron Man, and last month's Thor) is due to how the material is treated. Gone is the comic book imagery of the 70's Batman TV series, with it's colorful "Bam!" "Pow!" "Boom!" approach. Real comic book fans know that most popular comic book material is far from kid-stuff, with some complex and often dark themes at play. The Marvel films have done a great job of taking the source material seriously, but not too seriously...there is, after all, much belief that needs to be suspended if we are to believe in all of this good vs. evil stuff, with men wearing spandex and shooting laser beams from their hands.
The X-Men characters have always been among the most popular due to this as-realistic-as-possible approach to the question: What if there were super-heroes in reality? The idea that super-powers don't come from radio-active spiders or super-men from outer space, puts the story of the X-Men in a more believable reality. These powers instead come from mutation, a natural phenomenon that only Sarah Palin can't wrap her head around. The X-Men handle their mutant-abilities and attributes much like we would handle acne, or shyness, or any other characteristic that makes us feel different...some embrace it, some try to cover it up, and we all deal with our problems in unique ways. Now you know how the X-Men have become one of the most relatable and real comic book franchises in history.
First Class. This all boils down to the origin story that is "X-Men: First Class." The 2 central characters of the X-Men universe are the mutants Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto). We know from the previous X-Men movies that these two are old friends, whose philosophies toward mutant-kind pit them against each other as sworn enemies. Charles uses his skills to teach other mutants to cope with their differences, and to use their strengths for the betterment of human-kind. Magneto on the other hand, sees mutation as evolution...that human fear of mutants will only lead to annihilation of the mutant race. He trains mutants to use their powers to dominate humans and fight against potential enslavement, which human-kind has always shown as an inevitable follow-up to fear and misunderstanding.
"X-Men: First Class" answers for us the question as to how Charles and Erik have arrived at their modern-day philosophies. Charles was born into wealth, and never had many hardships. Erik on the other hand, began his life enslaved in a Nazi camp, where he watched as an entire race of people were killed for being "different."
A previous X-Men movie showed a brief scene with young Erik as his mutant powers were first showcased as he was separated from his mother at one of these Nazi camps. We learn in "First Class" that it got much worse. Under the influence of the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Erik learns that his mastery of all-things metal only comes out of emotions of anger.
The movie itself is held together by the strong performances from James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier, and from Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. We watch the film unfold in a beautiful arc of storytelling centering around the Cuban Missile Crisis that takes time to establish their characters, their beliefs, and why they do what they do. We learn of the origins of the X-Men School of Mutants, of "Cerebro" (the powerful machine that Professor X later uses to communicate with mutants all over the world), and what leads Charles and Erik down different paths. We see much more of Emma Frost (seen briefly in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and see the origins of Magneto's helmet as well as the story of the blue-furred Beast...a mutant by definition but more of a scientific experiment gone wrong. We even learn how Professor X ends up in a wheelchair.
The unexpected twists and surprises is what makes the movie. In addition of getting all of this background, one character from the X-Men Trilogy gets a lot of backstory here. That character is Mystique, the blue-skinned shape-shifter played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in the originals. Mystique actually started off as the closest of friends to Charles, and her journey is given weight by the amazing Jennifer Lawrence. After seeing "First Class," it will be interesting to re-watch the original movies now that we see Mystique's journey from the beginning.
The other mutants in this film that make up Professor X's first class of mutants aren't all that interesting, but they're not meant to be. This is a movie that establishes Charles and Erik and sets up the premise of the 3 films we've already seen. Look for a hilarious cameo scene with a popular mutant that we know all too well...
Bottom Line. The characters that matter to this film and to the franchise are the characters that are developed, leaving many of the surrounding mutants on the sidelines...and this is one of the greatest choices that could have been made. The Charles/Erik storyline is what we want to see, and director Matthew Vaughn (along with the writers) does a good job of not over-stuffing the movie with too-many characters for us to know and care about. McAvoy and Fassbender capture not only the spirit of their characters, but also that of the actors we have come to love in those roles (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan).
"X-Men: First Class" is a summer block-buster at it's best, and a must-see for comic book and X-Men fans. New to the X-Men hooplah? It acts as an accessible jump-in point that will leave you wanting to see the 3 previous films that it sets up. In a summer of Marvel Comic movies being released to set up the ginormously hyped-up "Avengers" film next summer (like Thor and Captain America), it was a curious choice to release a prequel right now...but "X-Men: First Class" may be the best of the bunch.
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