X-Men: First Class

As a teenager, when I felt restless, I would sometimes get in my beat up 1977 Toyota Corolla station wagon and drive.  There was a section of highway that was perfect for clearing the head.  It had long straight sections and lazy, sweeping curves that gave the driver a chance to open up his machine and, with the windows down and the radio loud, lose ones self in the wind and music.  I could usually depend on a half hour drive clearing my head, calming my nerves and gaining a fresh perspective.  Perhaps that’s why, if I could have one superpower, it would be the ability to fly.  Soaring among the clouds free as a bird strikes me as the perfect sort of liberation and ultimate relaxation; unfortunately, if I want to fly, that usually means buying a ticket, going through security, waiting to board, struggling to put my carry-on bag in the overhead bin, squeezing into a small seat that’s far too close to the one in front, ears popping from the change in pressure, struggling to take the carry-on bag out of the overhead bin while trying to avoid smacking the other passengers in the head with it as they attempt to de-plane.  Just writing those words made me tense, exactly the opposite of what I would use the power of flight for.  Sadly, the only people who have superpowers are in the movies and this week, the Summer of Superheroes continues with “X-Men:  First Class.”  Is the film as the name implies, or is it more like being stuck back with the rest of the cattle in economy class?

Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) come from two completely different worlds in the 1940’s.  Charles was born into a family of wealth and privilege in the United States while Erik was raised in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, Poland.  As a child, Erik and his family were put in a concentration camp by the Nazis and Erik witnessed his mother’s murder at the hands of Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon).  During times of great anger and pain, Erik can control metal objects by emitting a magnetic field from his body.  Dr. Schmidt hopes to use Erik as a weapon for the Nazis.  When he was 12, Charles discovered his mother in the kitchen in the middle of the night, but he knew it wasn’t really his mother.  The woman transforms into a little girl named Raven (played as an adult by Jennifer Lawrence), about Charles’ age, who has blue, scaly skin, yellow eyes and is a shape shifter.  Charles is a telepath and is relieved to discover there are other people like him.  As an adult, Erik is on the hunt for Nazis around the world, especially Dr. Schmidt; but the doctor, now called Sebastian Shaw, is gathering up an army of mutants with a plan to start a nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union.  Shaw believes the mutants will thrive in the post-nuclear environment and take over the world from non-mutants.  Charles, now a brilliant scientist with a PhD, is approached by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), for advice on genetic mutation after she witnesses some of Shaw’s mutants’ powers.  Charles and Raven begin working for the government searching out other mutants using a device created by Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) called Cerebro which amplifies Charles’ psychic abilities and allows him to pinpoint their locations.  His search discovers Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), who can emit supersonic noises with his voice, Angel Salvador (Zoe Kravitz), who has housefly-like wings and spits acid, Alex Summers (Lucas Till), who emits blasts of pure energy, Armando Munoz (Edi Gathegi), who’s body instantly mutates to provide protection from attack.  During an operation to capture Shaw, Charles and Erik meet and begin a partnership to stop Shaw’s plan and introduce the world to mutants.

It’s always tricky to take a known commodity and reinvent it.  Hollywood has a history of cannibalizing older properties, remodeling them with younger stars and better effects for modern audiences, hoping crowds will shell out new money for old entertainment.  Usually it doesn’t work.  With “X-Men:  First Class” it does.  The reboot of the Marvel franchise with a new origin story and more background on the early relationship between Professor X and Magneto soars with a youthful energy and enthusiasm that’s usually missing from similar restarts.  The story, set against the Cuban missile crisis and with more than a passing resemblance to the civil rights movement, keeps a brisk pace even during the usually dull early scenes.  We see some of Charles and Erik’s formative years, with a special emphasis on the anger and pain suffered by the young Magneto, and how their early partnership was fractured by Erik’s distrust of humans (usually deserved).  We also get a nice cross section of mutants in the film with a wide range of abilities.  There are even a couple of cameos by Rebecca Romijn and Hugh Jackman for fans of the first films.  With a number of quality action scenes and mostly very good special effects, “X-Men:  First Class” gives Marvel the first of what will probably be another three films for a franchise that has already generated over $1-billion in ticket sales worldwide.

Unfortunately, not all is perfect in mutantville and there are some things that could have been better.  Most glaringly is the choice of January Jones as Emma Frost.  While the actress, best known for her role on “Mad Men,” can pull off the sexpot seductress with ease, she has very little range for any other emotion.  She seems to play just about everything in the same low gear.  I’ve seen her on “Mad Men” and thought her character was supposed to be a repressed, possibly abused, woman of the era.  Now, it appears Jones plays all parts the same way.  If there are more X-Men films, I hope this part is recast.  There are also a couple of effects shots that look like they needed more tweaking, primarily the look of the American and Soviet ships in the film’s climactic battle scene.  The ships look flat and dull.  Perhaps they needed a little more finishing at the computer effects house where they were created and just ran out of time.  While this is a minor quibble with the effects that are otherwise excellent, this lack of image crispness stood out for me.

For every complaint I may have about the film, there are scores of compliments I could hand out.  Kevin Bacon seems to relish his role as the film’s primary villain.  He’s powerful with delusions of grandeur and has a subtle way of making a threat that sounds more like a friendly request.  James McAvoy is terrific as Xavier.  He has a quick wit and makes you believe he cares about the future of humanity and the outcome of the conflict.  Michael Fassbender gives Magneto a human core that may have been missing from Sir Ian McKellan’s version, largely because we get less background on the earlier incarnation.  There is also some spectacular flying footage as the mutants face off over Cuban waters.  While most was computer generated, it looks like some of it may have actually been stunt performers or skydivers.  Either way, it will take your breath away.

“X-Men:  First Class” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.  The “F-bomb” is dropped one time and there are other scattered instances of foul language.  The sexuality is brief and I think strains the definition of the word.  There is a great deal of fighting in the movie, usually with mutant powers.  There is one scene where a man’s hand is stabbed with a knife, pinning it to a table.

There has been some talk that this film is the equal of “The Dark Knight.”  While it doesn’t quite match the epic quality of that movie, “X-Men:  First Class” is certainly one of my top ten superhero flicks.

“X-Men:  First Class” gets five guitars.

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