Friday, June 24, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
2011. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.
James McAvoy
Michael Fassbender
Kevin Bacon
Jennifer Lawrence
Rose Byrne
Jason Flemyng
Zoë Kravitz
Oliver Platt
January Jones
Nicholas Hoult
Laurence Belcher
Bill Milner
Morgan Lily

Despite the fact there are very few people willing to admit they like either movie, both X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine made goo-gobs of money. Logically, this means the franchise can’t die. Instead, we get another prequel. This one explores the reasoning behind the paths chosen by Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender).

Let’s take a quick moment to fill in the non-geeks and those who’ve never seen an “X-Men” movie. If you don’t fall into either category, skip the rest of this paragraph. In the world of Marvel Comics and, of course, this franchise of movies, mutants are people who’s genetic mutations give them superpowers such as flight, telepathy, shapeshifting, etc. Regular humand, particularly those in government, have a fear/hatred relationship with them. Our two heroes, as we know them from previous installments, are the leaders of two opposing factions of mutants. Both want fundamental changes in society and how it views and treats mutants, but have very different approaches. Professor X is a work within the system, Martin Luther King Jr. type while Magneto is a ‘by any means necessary,’ Malcolm X type. This is way over-simplifying, but you get the idea. This movie explains how that happened.

We pick things up in the midst of World War II, when our heroes were wee lads. The professor, then only known as Charles Xavier, is a poor little rich kid living in a hug mansion with absentee parents. He’s also a telepath. He can rather literally get inside your head and do all sorts of Jedi mind tricks. One day, he finds Raven, soon to be known as Mystique (Lawrence) in his kitchen. She’s a shapeshifter with nowhere to go, so he takes her in. Magneto, then Erik Lehnsherr has the misfortune of being a young Jew in a Nazi concentration camp. The German doctor Sebastian Shaw, played by a delightful Kevin Bacon, uses a little unfriendly persuasion to draw out the kid’s power which is Erik can control anything made of metal with just his thoughts.This is pretty much all you need to know. When they become adults, the boys finally meet and soon fid themselves working for the CIA. The Marvel Universe version of the Cuban Missile Crisis ensues.

As implied earlier, the last two films in the X-Men canon are failures. The Last Stand just keeps throwing things at you, all of them half-baked. It hopes the constant barrage of noisy, shiny objects is enough to distract you from the fact that the story is haphazardly slapped together. The Wolverine movie is better, but feels overblown and hokey. First Class, however, is comfortable enough in its own skin to let things, characters included, develop. It doesn’t feel the need to rush us along from one action scene to the next. There is action, of course. After all, this is a comic book movie. The point is, we get it when the movie is actually ready to give it to us, not every few minutes because the filmmaker has, or fears we have severe ADD. We get to know our three main characters pretty well and care about the decisions they make. This is key for Magneto. Throughout the other movies he is, without doubt, the villain. Here, he’s a sympathetic figure. The same goes for Mystique. We also get to know a few of the others. Perhaps because it is an origin movie, it has no choice but to do things this way. Still, it works.

Overall, First Class is a very enjoyable popcorn movie. Like the best of X-Men, it has slightly more on its mind than most films of its ilk. It’s also a bit subtle for a superhero flick. With that in mind, if you’re looking for wall-to-wall action don’t look here. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find action, but it’s spread out and not really the focus. Die hard comic book fans may complain about liberties taken with the source material. However, it’s well done and translates nicely to the big screen.

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