X-Men: First Class

Masterful storytelling.  Well-developed characters.  Magnificent performances.  Incredible dialogue.

Don’t expect to think any of these phrases while watching X-Men: First Class, the latest installment in the ongoing superhero franchise.  Now entering its second decade, this fourth sequel is really the obligatory “origin movie” in the series.  Yes, it’s nowhere close to greatness but much to my surprise, despite its screenplay deficiencies, there’s enough technical skill and effective performances from the appealing cast to warrant a modest recommendation.

Without a doubt, the most interesting character is Erik Lehnsherr, the Holocaust survivor with the uncanny ability to manipulate magnetic objects with his mind.  (The Rebel Alliance could’ve used him in the Star Wars movies.)

Like the very first X-Men film, we see him as a young child being separated from his family in Poland right near the end of the Second World War in 1944.  Then, something cool happens.  A pissed off Erik takes out his rage on a big steel gate that’s just been closed by some Nazi guards.

Erik’s abilities impress the hell out of a particularly nasty Nazi scientist (played well by Kevin Bacon) who wants the lad to move a silver coin, without touching it, over to his side of the desk.  Just to make sure he plays ball, Bacon has a couple of his goons bring in his poor mother who will be shot at the count of three if he’s unsuccessful.  (Needless to say, she urges him to just do the Jedi coin trick already.) 

But stubborn Erik pretends to really struggle with the task which leads to the inevitable.  What happens next truly is a triumph of special effects as the enraged Jew manipulates every other metal object around him as a devilishly grinning Bacon beams like a proud father.  The whole scene is really well done.  It has to be or the rest of the movie doesn’t really matter.

18 years later, a now fully grown Erik stares at a photo of Bacon and surprisingly gives away, without saying a word, a key plot point.  He will not rest until he has his revenge.

Meanwhile, Erik’s eventual nemesis, Charles Xavier, is startled one night when, as a young child himself, he’s puzzled to find his mom in the family kitchen.  Knowing full well this is odd behaviour coming from her, he calls out the young girl who brilliantly imitates her physical form.  (She even gets the voice down perfectly.)  She can’t believe he could tell the difference and that he’s unafraid of her real appearance.  Very sweetly, Raven and Charles become immediate friends.  Much to her eventual disappointment, though, he only sees her as a spiritual sister, not a possible mate.

We soon catch up with them as fully grown adults.  Xavier (now played by the charming James MacAvoy) has transformed into a brainy Austin Powers type (with better teeth), hitting on beautiful women with science talk.  A lonely Raven (the gorgeous and mysterious Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence) is jealous of this and remains a reluctant mutant in hiding.

In 1962, a much younger looking Bacon has replaced his German accent with an American one and in order to blend in he’s developed side burns.  (How very 1965 of him.)  He’s manipulating both The Soviets and The Americans into believing that both sides are eager to eliminate the other in a full-scale nuclear war.  

Why is he doing this?  Because he believes mutants are the supermen of their species (“the children of the atom”) and before humans make note of their existence, like the Nazis in WW2, he wants to exterminate them before they try any funny business.  He hopes to inherit the world and rule it like a king.  Very original.

But there’s a big problem.  A beautiful CIA agent (Rose Byrne) has secretly witnessed Bacon and a few of his mutant friends (one who literally looks like the devil, another a telepath who can transform into crystal, and yet another who can make tornadoes come out of his hands) threatening an American general to do his bidding in a secret room in a Vegas casino.  She seeks out Xavier, now a full-fledged professor, who at first foolishly tries to pick her up at the local pub.  (She’s too smart for his line of bull.)  But once she explains the situation, he’s ever so helpful.  What a nice young man.

Thanks to an important invention by a young CIA scientist (the likeably shy Nicholas Hoult), Professor X is able to expand the use of his telepathic powers beyond even his own human limitations and find the location of other mutants, all four of them.  With a reluctant Erik on board as well as former laughingstock G-man Oliver Platt (he’s typically good here but should’ve been given more to do), who claimed to always believed in the existence of mutants despite the chronic skepticism of his colleagues, this growing Marvel Comics Justice League need to band together to foil the evil plans of Kevin Bacon and company before an alternate history of The Cuban Missile Crisis can become reality.

As you can imagine, X-Men: First Class is not terribly brilliant nor astoundingly original.  The dialogue, in particular, will not light a fire under your ass.  While there are some standout lines, for the most part it’s serviceable. 

No, the real joy of the film centers around its terrific action sequences that depend greatly on its marvellous use of special effects, a strength it shares with X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like the earlier pictures, the characters are not terribly well drawn.  Beyond their cool superpowers, with some exceptions, there isn’t a lot of interesting personalities here.

That being said, I liked the brief Raven-Beast romance (which could’ve been developed a little more) as well as the interactions between the philosophically opposed Professor X (who believes humans will ultimately accept mutants) and Erik (who believes they’re Nazis in the making), the man destined to become Magneto.  (There’s also a very funny cameo from a character who got his own origin movie two years ago.)  Michael Fassbender does a terrific job as the latter.  He’s a fierce adversary to anyone who’s ever crossed him.  Consider the scene where he disposes of two of Bacon’s cronies in a bar.  Gripping stuff.  I wouldn’t fuck with him.  That’s for sure.

Speaking of Bacon, that key early scene involving the silver coin nicely establishes the sheer diabolical nature of his character.  (He’s also a bit sexist.  Note how treats the beautiful January Jones when she thinks she’s his equal.)  But it must be said, whenever he puts on that helmet (later used by Magneto) to prevent Xavier from reading his mind, he looks really silly which in a quick, self-aware moment he readily acknowledges, thankfully.  It’s definitely more practical than fashionable.

Inevitably, while there is resolution to the main story (the consequential fight between Magneto and Professor X is particularly well executed), the ending makes it clear we’ll likely see another chapter in this series.  When that becomes reality, let’s hope 20th Century Fox gives Christopher Nolan a call.  Surely, he could elevate the quality of this franchise to something well above  “just ok”.

(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
12:46 a.m.

UPDATE:  Special thanks to Christina Lucas for cross-posting this review (with nifty pics) over at The Blog Entourage which you can check out here.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, June 23, 2011
5:44 p.m.

Published in: on June 8, 2011 at 12:46 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a really great review! Would you mind letting me put it on The Blog Entourage as a guest post? I’ll link it back to your blog.

  2. […] good, very good or excellent.  Seven of these features – The Crow: City Of Angels, Super 8, X-Men: First Class, Eclipse (the third Twilight movie), Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, A Nightmare On Elm Street […]

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