“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” With these words uttered by an otherwise fine actor, the irascible Vinnie Jones, I watched a once mighty and respectable franchise take the cinematic equivalent of irritable bowel syndrome after a night of bad Mexican food and explode all over the screen with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Dissolving a poignant and endlessly engaging series into a 90 minute video game filled with catchphrases and ‘Hey isn’t that so-and-so?’ cameos.
So it was no surprise that when this reviewer first heard about the news of a prequel and (fingers-crossed) relaunch of the X-Men franchise, I was…concerned and not in a good way. What little bit X-Men: First Class did have going for it was overshadowed by a quite honestly lackluster marketing campaign and my own personal experience. The promos used recycled footage from the original film to build up some sort of hype and offered very little in the way of plot and almost nothing in way of ‘wow’ factor. My only hope laid in the executive production and story by Bryan Singer and direction of Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) who incidentally was at the helm of X-Men: Last Stand for like a minute. Now in hindsight can you imagine what that film could have been in his capable hands?
Within the first 10 minutes of First Class, all of my fears were completely silenced. I knew not only as a member of the audience that I was in confident hands but I also knew that I was watching a compelling drama that just happened to have superheroes and not a superhero film. The film deftly picks up where the origin of young Erik Lensherr/Magneto in the original X-Men (2000) film left off, in a Nazi concentration camp. (I think after 10 years this doesn’t qualify as a spoiler) Just as in the original X-Men, young Erik’s powers of magnetism manifest under the most tragic of circumstances as he watches his parents being led off, presumably, to the slaughter in an Auschwitz-type concentration camp.
After being knocked unconscious by a Nazi guard before he was able to impossibly pry open the iron gates, he’s immediately summoned by a delightful Kevin Bacon posing as a Mengele-esque figure trying to explore the next step in human evolution. He places a Nazi coin on his desk as asks Erik to simply ‘move the coin.’ Let’s just say with the right persuasion, he produces the results he’s looking for and then some. Thus the man who would be Magneto is set on the path of the dark side. Meanwhile, the origin of Charles Xavier begins under much different circumstances as he confronts ‘someone’ posing as his mother in the kitchen telling them telepathically that his mother ‘has never set foot in this kitchen, in her life.’ The imposter then suddenly morphs into a young Raven Darkholme aka Mystique and thus an unlikely friendship is born. Flashforward about twenty years give or take a few, and we meet up with a grown Erik, the riveting Michael Fassbender (300, Inglorious Basterds), who is a now a driven and haunted man, looking to get his Charles Bronson on as he works his way up the food chain of those responsible for what happened to him and his parents. He doesn’t care one iota for the plight of mutants. He’s got an ice cold can of whoop-ass and he’s just itching to serve it up.
Across the pond, Charles Xavier is trolling the pubs around his alma mater, Oxford University. He doesn’t care one iota about the plight of mutants either. Remember the opening narration of the first X-Men movie?
“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.”
Now that would make a helluva pick-up line, don’t you think? No? Just wait until you see James McAvoy (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) portraying a young, charming, ambulatory and not to mention fully coifed Professor Charles Xavier, rock this line to a beautiful co-ed. He’s arguably the most powerful mind-reader on the planet and what does he do with that ability? Use it to bed hot blonds. And business is good until his path collides with Erik’s.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, First Class grounds all of the fantastic powers and special effects versus one of the most crucial events in American history. While Erik zeroes in on Bacon’s, Sebastian Shaw, (imagine a cross between Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump with a dash of superpowers) and his entourage of mutant cronies, the Hellfire Club, things start to hit the fan and quickly.
Charles Xavier, now working as a genetic mutation expert with the CIA encounters Erik trying to exact his vengeance and intercedes. An awkward alliance is formed but as the genesis of what would eventually become the X-Men is forged, so are the seeds of their eventual conflict. The chemistry between the two leads is as organic as it is divergent. These two couldn’t play off of each other better. Very reminiscent of two other civil rights leaders of the 60’s, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Both wanting the same goal but where one has adopted a decree of non-violent integration, the other is definitely of the ‘by any means necessary’ camp.
The usual cadre of young mutants are served up for our approval or disapproval. The only ones of real note are Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast (About a Boy), a endearing nerd who is seeking a cure for particular mutation and Caleb Landry Jones (The Last Exorcism) who plays Sean Cassidy/Banshee, a cocky Irish ginger whose supersonic bark is worse than his bite.
All in all, I’d have to say that X-Men: First Class gets a heckuva lot more right than it does wrong. The tag team of Singer and Vaughn takes the franchise back to formula and all parties involved are better off for it. Audiences will be treated to a cinematic journey more in the vein of The Dark Knight instead of Green Lantern. The theme of film can be summed up beautifully in this exchange between Charles and Erik from the trailer; “Killing will not bring you peace. Peace was never an option.” So while not a perfect score, First Class, definitely gets high marks for execution and an A- for effort.
[imdblt]X-Men First Class[/imdblt]