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A Young, Sexy, Smart Invigoration of the X-men Series

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)
Summary: A young Charles Xavier puts together a team of mutants with the help of his then-friend Magneto to oppose Sebastian Shaw who tries to start World War III.
Spoilers: none

From Marvel Comics, X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-team with a young, new cast of eye-catching talent.

This one could perhaps be the best of the X-men movies, the primary reason for which would be the emphasis on character development over action, though there is plenty of that, too.

We begin with a young, concentration-camp-confined “Magneto” (Bill Milner) who, in 1944, first discovers his powers to manipulate metal. We are thereafter introduced to a young “Professor Charles Xavier” (Laurence Belcher) where we see his first run-in with a young “Mystique” (Morgan Lily).

When we meet our villain, “Sebastian Shaw” (Kevin Bacon) – a Nazi official who is responsible for the death of Magneto’s mother – we are led to discover that his “Master Race” obsession not only gives him a part in the movie that is easily explained by him identifying as a Nazi, but makes him a relevant part of the action, as an ultra-powerful mutant villain himself. Shaw is not so much a Nazi as a “super-nazi,” an admirer of Hitler who wants to take the blond-haired, blue-eyed obsession of the evolution of perfect genetics to the next level.

In the first X-men movie (2000), we learned of Magneto’s past as a survivor of the Holocaust. We are therefore none too surprised when Magneto’s early trauma paves the way for his hatred of non-mutants (again, you will note how nicely this lines up with his need to fill the role of super-villain in the later years). 

Jumping ahead to 1961, we meet grown-up Xavier (James McAvoy) and grown-up Magneto (Michael Fassbender). This young Xavier is not balding and Fassbender doesn’t look like Ian McKellen’s Magneto, but oh well. The two find each other and are on the same side. Their common enemy is Shaw who is hell-bent on taking advantage of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia, thereby annihilating all non-mutants in the cross-attack. We get to learn of other mutant characters, like “Beast” played here by Nicholas Hoult and by Kelsey Grammer in the previous films. To be outdone by no one, we have looker January Jones as “Anna Frost.”

Professor X and Magneto may have a common enemy, but they don’t share ideologies. It’s Shaw and Magneto who are two of a kind. They are on the same page as far as their vision of how the world should be. Shaw just happened to make the unfortunate mistake of killing Magneto’s mother. And of course, it isn’t a big leap to realize that as the movie progresses, it is the character differences between Xavier and Magneto that get peeled back for audiences to revel in.

And this, dear readers, is the strongest attribute of X-men: First Class. As stated, character development is the central focus, not showy super-powers. Whereas Professor X is sympathetic to the human plight, he sees the good and the bad and the potential thereof in any race or group; Magneto, by contrast, is the victim who sees only the scars and turmoil that made him what he is, ruled by anger and thoughts of revenge.

Even at the end when we see the metamorphosis of the two blooming characters, we see Magneto as being in the right more so than the wrong. We want to sympathize with him more so than his adversary, or so many viewers would say. At times, Professor X seems naïve and optimistic whereas Magneto is like the hardened wartime general who sees and knows clearly the underhanded nature of human beings on the blood-sprinkled road to self-preservation.

It is the reversal of expected roles that makes this a deeper movie than it might otherwise get credit for. We want – no, we need – to question who is really bad or good—life is full of gray, not nicely-transitioning patches of black and white as on a chessboard.    

If you’ve noticed in past X-men movies how powerful Magneto is and wondered why, the movie explains it. Magneto was extremely gifted from the start, and it was Professor X who, through the use of his own abilities, showed him how to unlock those gifts.

But in a movie that is as complex as this one (being focused almost exclusively on origins), it is set back by lack of detail—or sometimes too much detail. The sometimes-overplayed accents and postures and some overacting counts against it a little. We can get past it, though.

Xavier is not even balding. When Shaw shoots Magneto’s mother, the guards holding her are standing too close. You’d think, as soldiers, they’d take better precautions against a stray bullet hitting them. Just a few minor details like this are off, but they don’t hurt things, not as much as a small amount of flaunted showing-off of super-powers for the younger members of the audience.

Another strength of the film: you can always tell what is going on and what is happening in relation to other events happening at the same time. The story escalates quickly and is beautifully paced. The film is thematically impressive as opposed to just visually impressive, though it has its moments. Nevermind a cheesy exploration by the plot in terms of some playful romantic chemistry, and you have a movie credibly focused on its message.

The plot-twists are simple and unpronounced, unlike the proud struts, the cool lines (with occasional clichés), and the bad guys when they are playing up their badness. The film’s message of loving being normal vs. loving being different is elementary to the human struggle to conform, which makes it of great value.

The getting up and walking out after emotional exchanges, the dialog that sometimes carries on long after the audience gets the point, no, it’s not remarkable, but it more than works. We can overlook a few flaws in light of it being action-packed, funny, and definitely sexy. The gratuitous costumes, the power experimentation, and even shit like echolocation and flight…it’s a wild, showy, and damn fun ride. I loved it.

(JH)

Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for violence, sensuality, and adult themes)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: “Charles Xavier” (James McAvoy), “Charles Xavier” (12 Years) (Laurence Belcher), “Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto” (Michael Fassbender), “Young Erik” (Bill Milner), “Sebastian Shaw” (Kevin Bacon), “Moira MacTaggert” (Rose Byrne), “Raven / Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence), “Mrs. Xavier” (Beth Goddard), “Young Raven” (10 yrs) (Morgan Lily), “Man In Black Suit” (Oliver Platt), “Janos Quested / Riptide” (Álex González), “Azazel” (Jason Flemyng), “Angel Salvadore” (Zoë Kravitz), “Emma Frost” (January Jones), “Hank McCoy / Beast” (Nicholas Hoult)
Genre: Action / Adventure / Drama / Sci-Fi / Thriller
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