Dir. by Matthew Vaughn
I’ll be honest here: I never liked the X-Men comics. When I started to get back into comics in high school (thank you, Alan Moore) we had two comic stores in my town, on opposite sides of the city limits. The one thing they both had in common were shrieking X-Men fanboys, babbling and crying over these characters like old housewives and soap operas. I wanted nothing to do with that and intentionally kept my distance. As such, then, now, I have no passion around them or their stories but I have come to learn quite a bit more thanks to the movie versions of their stories. I thought the first couple films were pretty entertaining, trying to get at the struggle of those that society would deem as “the other,” putting a typically white but nonetheless human face on that conflict. The third X-Men film didn’t do anything for me, though, and I thought the Wolverine spin-off was vastly disappointing
So it was with low-bar trepidation that I went into the latest film, X-Men: First Class
, a film seeking to not reboot the series but, rather, re-energize it. Helmed by Kick-Ass
director Matthew Vaughn I thought it at least might be entertaining and get more to that people-behind-the-mask sorta thing. And while it doesn’t rewrite the book in that regard the movie does what it sets out to do: Namely, garnering interest in the franchise all over again.
The film opens with young versions of the primary protagonists, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, and speaks to how much their environments will determine the leaders they come to be. Charles lives in opulence, carrying a “hidden” mutation that still lets him into the heads of anyone else. Finding the source of a late-night break-in he finds Raven/Mystique and his cheeriness lends itself to great hospitality, recognizing they are of the same type and all. On the flip side is Erik, imprisoned in a concentration camp under the cruel tutelage/experimentation of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Erik’s story is in stark contrast to Charles’, full of misery, pain and loss which, in turn, he learns to use to feed his ability to bend metal.
Flash forward nearly 20 years on the older characters where Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) are out at a pub, having grown into a brother-sister relationship. It’s soon clear that Charles, while working on his doctoral thesis on genetic mutation, is able to cheekily employ his ability to pick up girls in bars, Raven is discontented at not sharing either his genius or an ability/willingness to hide her ability. Meanwhile, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is resolutely hunting Shaw, finding a path of Nazi war criminals and collaborators to lead him to his prey. He is ruthless, cunning, but also overwhelmed with anger and vengeance.
Soon, however, these three will come together, thanks mainly to CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) witnessing Shaw and his bevvy of bad mutants getting the US envoy to the UN to do their bidding. Moira brings Charles and Raven to meet with her skeptical CIA chiefs and they’re soon all working together with a special branch of that governmental body. They attempt to apprehend Shaw while Erik is attempting to assassinate him. Shaw escapes but Charles and Erik form a quick bond of sorts, recognizing the levels of power and commitment in one another. Together, then, they set out in a brief montage to recruit other mutants to their cause. They soon have a small team assembled and again plan to stop Shaw, who seems set on enabling nuclear annihilation.
It’s clear, then, that the mutants-vs.-humans themes of the earlier films are being established here, with Shaw being an obvious forerunner to Erik becoming Magneto, right down to the telepath-blocking helmet. So the curious point of the film then turns to see how these characters come to be, how these two strong personalities and allies could turn so resolutely on each other, to see the influences on the other team members’ decisions of which path they will follow. Thankfully, all the white people survive and stay on Charles’ side while the ethnics and psychos follow Erik’s path of supremacy.
The story vein here is fairly rich, tapping into a somewhat well-known story and seeking to understand the “why” of the characters which is the strength of the X-Men saga. Being born differently doesn’t necessarily make one good or evil - it’s an on-going struggle that can affect even family relationships and force people to face some devastating truths about themselves and the society they’ve created. The performances here are pretty much stellar (how could they not be w/ Lawrence, Macavoy, and Fassbender?) though some seem entirely disposable, such as eye-candy Emma Frost (January Jones, about as passionately played as her character’s name suggests) or now-I’m-an-evil-stripper Angel (Zoe Kravitz), the other ethnic that goes bad seemingly pretty quickly. So with racial and gender roles thoroughly screwed the film can focus on its white male lead protagonists who ably carry the story. And since the relationship between Charles and Erik is played out much like a love story - a fairly entertaining love story, to be sure - I’m left once again at that initial opinion of the X-Men universe being just another soap opera, one with neat f/x...