X-Men First Class
starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, and Kevin Bacon
directed by Matthew Vaughn
screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Twentieth Century Fox (2011)
After the last couple of X-Men movies, I figured the film franchise was running on empty. X-Men First Class retrofits a Cold War era pastiche on the characters, making the old quite literally new again.
The focus of the story is on Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) before they adopted their X-Men personas. Charles Xavier is a young man from a privileged home, looking to become an ambassador between humans and the emergence of mutants. Erik Lensherr is a Holocaust survivor, out for revenge against the Nazi scientist who discovered and exploited his magnetic superpower. One driven by hope, the other by revenge, both men find a common enemy and a contentious friendship as the learn their powers and help others like them. The first class of X-Men.
The movie tries to remain loyal to the continuity of the films, rather than adhering to whatever canon exists in the comic books--no doubt infuriating fanboys everywhere. And the way the movie gives little winks and nods to the preceding movies, replete with cameos and passing mentions of what's to come for certain characters, makes for a much better experience than if the film had tried to do a complete reboot of the franchise.
The casting is again a strong suit for the film, as each prominent character is fleshed out to a point that they seem completely believable. Kevin Bacon played the especially devious scientist/mutant villain in the film, closer to a vintage Bond villain than something I'd expect from the pages of a Marvel comic. McAvoy and Fassbender were unsurprising in how good they were, Jennifer Lawrence as a teenaged Mystique did a bangup job as a conflicted mutant trying to decide which side of the battle she's really on. Even January Jones was tolerable on film as Emma Frost, thanks in large part to the character requiring only a cold, emotionless demeanor, which seems to be Jones' range judging by her previous performances. In fact, the only terrible thing about January Jones in his movie was the CGI associated with her character whenever her skin turned to diamonds. The effects looked so dated, they looked like they belonged in a film from the early 90s.
There were really only two other glaring disappointments for me with this movie. First, Hollywood's nasty habit of killing off the black man first rears its head in this movie as Darwin is the first of the X-Men to get killed off. What the hell? It's beyond cliche now. Secondly, and far less annoying, was Mystique's utterance of the phrase "mutant and proud." I'm sorry, but that was so awkward a line, I'm surprised Jennifer Lawrence didn't lose her balance while saying it. The fact she said it without rolling her eyes and letting out a heavy sigh shows how accomplished she is as an actor.
I find myself grading the movie on a curve. It's definitely one of the better superhero movies to come out over the last ten years, a decade that has produced a glut or mediocre to horrendous offerings in the genre. Outside that category, it's slightly above average summer fare. It's a movie that relies heavily on its special effects, yet has the good sense to use a solid story as its framework.