Film Review: “X-Men: First Class”

by Jason LeRoy on June 2, 2011

Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, and Lucas Till in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez

written by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn

directed by: Matthew Vaughn

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language.

As is usually the case with Marvel movies and other films that tap into a larger nerd mythology of which I am largely ignorant, I will begin with my standard non-fanboy disclaimer: I am not the target audience for X-Men: First Class. I have seen (and enjoyed) the first two X-Men films, but only once. I have seen neither the third film nor the Wolverine movie. And I haven’t read any of the comics or graphic novels or whatever else may have been created within the X-Men universe.

So, I basically had no idea who anyone was supposed to be as I watched this new film. While many around me were laughing knowingly to themselves as characters were introduced and relationships were established, I just stared blankly (usually at Michael Fassbender, swoon). I was vaguely aware that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) was the same character played by Patrick Stewart in the other films, but I had no idea what that really meant. And I inferred that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) would grow up to be Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique due to her rather unmistakable appearance. Beyond that: no clue. So if you’re looking for the perspective of an X-Men novice, you’ve come to the right review.

X-Men: First Class opens with a prologue in which we are introduced to its two central characters: Charles Xavier (McAvoy), enjoying a privileged childhood in Westchester, and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender), suffering a considerably more traumatic upbringing as a Jewish child during the Holocaust. While Charles is making the fellow-mutant acquaintance of young Raven, Erik is being torn from his mother and tortured by the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who wants to harness Erik’s mutant potential for his own evil use.

Flash forward to 1962. A federal agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) accidentally stumbles upon the existence of mutants while investigating a potential nuclear threat that could trigger World War III. Sebastian Shaw, along with his own team of mutants, is one of the chief instigators. This leads Moira to Charles Xavier, who has become known for his mutation studies. They gradually begin assembling a group of mutants to help combat Shaw’s team, mainly consisting of young kids like Raven (Lawrence), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Alex (Lucas Till), and Sean (Caleb Landry Jones). But they also enlist Erik, who has grown into a furious, violent man hellbent on avenging himself against Shaw.

First Class is basically a giant big-budget gift basket that’s been signed, sealed, and delivered to the X-Men fan base, although I gather it’s already pissed them off by rewriting parts of the origin story and switching around which characters were technically in the “first class.” But that isn’t my concern.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn (of the superior Kick-Ass), this is a competent but frequently ludicrous action film. It doesn’t quite conjure the same sense of gravitas as Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films, while paying somewhat laughable homage to the kitschy ’60s spy movies that inspired Austin Powers (McAvoy’s habit of complimenting the “groovy mutations” of young lovelies doesn’t exactly fight this comparison). Much of the dialogue falls flat. The whole thing feels a bit rushed, as though Vaughn didn’t have enough time to really do it right. It certainly lacks the audaciously visceral charge of Kick-Ass.

Fortunately they’ve assembled a truly stunning group of actors on the verge of major stardom, probably the most auspicious cast of the summer. McAvoy and Fassbender make a remarkable and rievting twosome. In particular, the devilishly handsome Fassbender brings a great deal of power and square-jawed intensity to his performance. While few of the characters are written with much depth or dimension, Erik’s comes the closest, and Fassbender conveys every agonizing detail of his harrowing arc. Hopefully this will be the performance that turns him into the movie star he deserves to be.

The ladies make an excellent showing as well. Byrne, who is on quite a roll this summer between this and Bridesmaids, plays Moira with empathy and intelligence. Lawrence, for whom this is merely a speed bump before the Hunger Games juggernaut begins, succeeds at making Raven/Mystique far more humane and complex than was ever suggested by Romijn’s performance. And rather than bash poor January Jones’ turn as Shaw’s moll, Emma Frost, I will simply say that she does what is asked of her: remain expressionless while wearing a dizzying array of white leather pantsuits.

In addition to its cast, X-Men: First Class also features the beginnings of the thought-provoking assimilation vs. proud otherness conversation inherent to its mythology. This has been (and continues to be) a vital element of any marginalized group’s struggles when negotiating its relationship with the mainstream, and the X-Men films function thrillingly as allegories about this dialogue. First Class is a bit too hokey and undercooked to really do justice to the intentions of its story, but at least it’s entertaining and impeccably cast. I’m not sure how many new X-Men fans will be converted by it, but the fans will eat it up.

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