"X-Men: First Class"

Like most kids, I was a big fan of superheroes growing up. Batman was my favorite but I had admiration for all the standard comic book legends and had the action figures to prove it. My superhero fascination kicked into high gear, however, when FOX started running a Saturday morning cartoon called “X-Men.” It was a life changing series for a kid who loved superheroes but had never really read a comic book. Much more mature and well-written than the average cartoon, it was the thin note of darkness that made “X-Men” so engrossing for me. These guys ran in a much more complex world than Superman or Batman did at the time and it was certainly a far cry from the cheesiness of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I quickly kicked “TMNT” to the curb (sorry, Raphael) and dove full boar into the “X-Men” universe. As such, I love the first two films, tolerate the third because I can’t bring myself to hate it, and was more than a little upset by “Wolverine.” I confess that last entry dulled my interest in the franchise and I really only gave “First Class” a passing glance every now and then as news of its production hit the internet. But as the film’s debut got closer and closer, I found myself unable to forgo my typical anticipation and expecting a great deal. I wasn’t disappointed.

“First Class” is an origin film that tells the story of how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), aka Professor X and Magneto, came to be the almost unwilling enemies they are in the other “X-Men” films. Set in the early 60s, we are first introduced to the radically different worlds that Charles and Eric inhabit. Charles, an intellectual prodigy who uses his abilities to further his career, is a product of unending prosperity and opportunity. Eric, meanwhile, developed his abilities under the pressure of Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), whose sick methods fueled the rage and pain that already ran through a young victim of the Holocaust. While teaming with the US government to track down Shaw, Charles and his pseudo-sister Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) come in contact with Eric who had just been foiled in his attempt to kill Shaw who has become a highly powerful mutant even compared to Charles and Eric. The two men become fast friends and with the help of a mutant-tracking invention designed by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who will later become Beast, they begin recruiting and training a team of young mutants. Their solidarity, however, is constantly tested as Charles pushes for peace and integration into the human society while Eric would have the group head off another Holocaust by exerting their dominance now. These differences are briefly put aside when the team learns that Shaw is pushing the US and the USSR into nuclear war via the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the two nations head toward World War III, Charles and Eric take on a joint mission to stop the planet’s destruction and kill Shaw.

There is a TON to like about “First Class” but let’s get two small complaints out of the way up front. First, if you’re an “X-Men” comic book lover, you’re probably not going to be a fan of this movie’s narrative. I don’t know all there is to know about the comics but my brother does and he was more than a little hacked off concerning the disregard for the already-established storyline. Second, there is a real clash of attitudes within “First Class.” It is at times disturbingly dark and at others almost overly campy. In one of the opening scenes we see Shaw murder Eric’s mother right in front of him. Later on, we get not one but two 80s-style montage scenes and another in which the young X-Men come up with their hero names. As a friend of mine said, it’s like director Matthew Vaughn went for a fun, campy comic book movie then realized what a goldmine of intense, dark action he had when he got into editing. I would argue that the real attempt was to illustrate the difference between the worldview’s of Charles and Eric but there’s no question that the clash is a bit of a detriment to the overall flow of the film. It’s less an identity crisis and more the on-screen personification of two roommates whose differences boil slightly under the surface but who like each other too much to let the conflict leak out.

That said, whether you’re looking from an action, comic book, or prequel standpoint, “First Class” is an extremely high-quality piece of work. Each of the actors do an admirable job of conveying the mixed emotions these mutants would go through. McAvoy and Fassbender are the keys, obviously, (more to come on these two), but most of the others, including Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee), and Lucas Till (Havok), do their part as well. Bacon and Lawrence, meanwhile, are both magnificent. Shaw has to be the embodiment of abject evil in order for Magneto to become who we know he is in the later films and while that’s not an easy task, Bacon comes through with one of his best performances in years. Likewise, Lawrence is stunningly brilliant. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: no matter what she’s doing, no matter how important or unimportant her place is in a scene, Lawrence ALWAYS manages to draw your eyes to her, even when she’s masked in a CGI blue scaly skin. In many ways Mystique is the starting point for the battle between Charles and Eric and Lawrence displays the weight of that battle with pinpoint accuracy. I cannot wait to see what this girl does in “The Hunger Games” films.

The mix of fiction and history is inspired and brings just enough realism so that surface objections to the alternative history can be satisfied but not so much as to delve into the obvious absurdity of a bunch of mutants preventing the escalation of the Cold War. (There’s a stroke of genius in that mix that might go unnoticed but I was highly impressed.) The dialogue is all at once simple and yet very smart and witty. It is a balance that should make “First Class” approachable to kids and adults alike which can be a big key for summer blockbusters. And the action sequences are dynamic and completely satisfying. One scene in particular, when Shaw and his cronies attack the mutant complex, is incredible.

But as I said above, the real meat of “First Class” is in the performances of McAvoy and Fassbender. I’m not a big fan of McAvoy and I admit I was truly disappointed when he was cast as Professor X. I’ve just never understood his charm. I do now. Xavier from “First Class” begins s a much less serious, intense character than he does in the original “X-Men” movies and McAvoy embraces that beautifully. The gradual change in his demeanor from carefree would-be ladies’ man to begrudging leader of a mutant resistance is much more harrowing and painful than you might expect and McAvoy absolutely nails it. Even more impressive, however, is the powerful performance that Fassbender puts out. Eric (or Magneto) is the PERFECT example of the tiny differences between a hero and villain. A different choice here or there and Magneto would be a great asset on Xavier’s team. Instead, the torment he underwent as a child and the anger that has burned through his soul leads him down a darker path. But the thing with Magneto is, he thinks he’s right, that he’s doing what needs to be done to preserve his race. That’s absolutely crucial to this story. If Fassbender plays Magneto as evil or if he doesn’t seem conflicted, this entire franchise falls apart. Magneto has to be torn by his actions, he has to struggle with morality, and he has to hate himself for fighting against his best friend. Fassbender displays all of that and then some, creating an unforgettable on-screen experience. In the pantheon of great comic book film characters, this version of Magneto is right up there with Downey’s Tony Stark, Ledger’s Joker, and any other superstar you can think of. It may not have started out this way but by the end of “First Class”, it is clear that this movie belongs to Fassbender. He almost singlehandedly propels the film to greatness when it probably should have been just “pretty good.”

The finished product is a proud achievement in the canon of superhero/comic book films. “First Class” wipes the palate of the less-than-stellar “Wolverine” (though Hugh Jackman does have an AWESOME cameo) and sets the stage wonderfully for whatever the franchise has in store for us in the future. It’s a film that nerds and casual movie goers of all ages should enjoy and represents the standard that we can only hope the rest of this summer’s movies can follow.

Grade: A-

Gambit was always my favorite X-man,