I’ll admit it: I’m a complete movie dork. When I first saw the trailer for X-Men: First Class, I literally felt my heart race. The movie was released nationwide on July 3, but I contemplated buying tickets a day early. I enjoyed the first X-Men movie, but had been disappointed by a couple of the sequels. This latest addition seemed a bit different, and I was intrigued from the start. The trailer teased me with previously unseen images like a young Professor Xavier with a head full of hair, ambling about with his pal Magneto. What?! I was sold.
First Class details the inception of the X-Men, a ragtag band of mutants helmed by the brilliant, young Charles Xavier (wonderfully played by James McAvoy, Wanted). The movie presumes that viewers will be familiar with characters already, but it is not necessary to have seen any of the previous X-Men movies. However, your viewing experience will be enhanced if you bone up on its predecessors before seeing First Class. The movie begins in a concentration camp where we see a young Magneto (real name Erik Lehnsherr) being separated from his parents. His angst reveals a curious reaction: the ability to bend metal. As he cries in anguish, the gate separating him from his family buckles under the force of his will. This feat is observed by the watchful eye of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a high level Nazi. Seeking to harness young Erik’s power for his own purposes, he spares the boy’s life and summons him to his office, where he commands him to move a coin on his desk. Only a boy, he does not fully understand the source of his power. In a move that will forever shape Erik’s existence, Shaw produces Erik’s mother to spur him to action. I won’t tell you exactly how a Nazi uses a Jewish boy’s mother as leverage against him, but use your imagination. It isn’t pretty. This early tragedy shapes Eric’s psyche and becomes the defining moment in his life. He was not “normal” to begin with; how can he ever be normal now? The movie moves forward to 1963, where Erik is in his 20s and has not forgotten the tragic events of his youth for one minute. He is on a mission to find Sebastian Shaw and exact a measure of revenge. It is the driving force within him. Having mastered his powers, he will not be denied.
Shaw, a mutant himself – is now a nefarious nuclear arms dealer who has positioned himself in the middle of what is historically known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. He wants to playAmericaandRussiaoff one another in hopes of starting a nuclear war whose aftermath will only be survived by mutants, allowing them to control the globe. Meanwhile, theU.S.government has enlisted the help of Charles Xavier to understand the mutants who threaten international security. James McAvoy infused Charles Xavier with a heretofore unseen charisma and panache. We’re accustomed to Patrick Stewart in the role – older, serious, benevolent and wise. I got a kick out of watching Xavier “spit game” to young women while his buddy Raven (Mystique) looked on. First of all, Mystique goes on to become a villain, and I had no idea that she and Charles were once allies and friends. Drawn together by their common abnormality, they displayed a familial kinship that reveals much about the circumstances that would shape these complex characters. In their quest for Shaw, Charles and Erik cross paths and agree to work together – though they have very different agendas. Charles wants to protect humanity, while Erik is wise enough to know that humans will turn on you in a minute. He is concerned with avenging what happened to his mother, and nothing more.
I’ve said enough about the plot and won’t discuss it further. There are too many details, and you have the gist of it. I’d rather spend the remaining space discussing how the film revealed the circumstances that gave rise to characters with which we are already familiar. Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds) Charles, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone) were very layered characters. The movie dismantled the dichotomy between “hero” and “villain,” in my opinion. Yes, Magneto will go on to become a diabolical, evil character. But he was not always that way. He was shaped and molded into a monster and had very little chance of becoming anything else. Why protect a world and a species that detests you? Charles was always “good,” but is there always honor in turning the other cheek? Is that wise or foolhardy? Ironically, it is Charles that teaches Magneto how to harness his power, and there are at least two scenes in the movie where they literally risk their lives for one another. It’s amazing that they will go on to be mortal enemies. Particularly powerful is the scene that finally reveals Charles’ hallmark paralysis. I won’t spoil it for you. Mystique and Magneto develop a bond because it is he who accepts her in her natural form, even more so than Charles. She does not have the luxury of concealing her mutant abilities unless she exerts energy in changing into human form. Magneto does not reject her blue skin; he embraces it. With him she truly finds a home, and viewers can see the manner in which her allegiance was formed. I was fascinated by all of these storylines, and that is why you would be disadvantaged if you were totally unfamiliar with the franchise or comic book before seeing First Class. But unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you’ve seen at least one X-Men movie.
I enjoyed the way actual historical news footage of President Kennedy was interspersed in the move, and I appreciated the wardrobe of the 1960s as well. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but mod fashion was a signature of the 1960s, and the filmmakers got it just right. I’d be remiss if I left you thinking that the movie was perfect, because it was not. The beginning tragic scene with Young Magneto and his mother failed to resonate with me as it should have. Maybe that was my fault, I don’t know – but it didn’t do what it should have done: really move me. I got that I was supposed to be moved, but I wasn’t. Additionally, when the other viewers in my theater first saw Kevin Bacon, they laughed LOL. I don’t know why, I guess we weren’t expecting it. It was kind of like oh he’s in this? *snicker* He did a great job, but that was just everyone’s intial reaction. Sorry Mr. Bacon. Also, this film should in no way be compared to The Dark Knight, as some are suggesting. Totally different movies…let The Dark Knight be. No one in this movie can sniff Heath Ledger’s performance and let’s just leave it at that. All that being said, I give a ringing endorsement to X-Men: First Class. Grade: A-
This article first appeared at www.poptimal.com and was reprinted with permission.