Review: ‘X-men: First Class’

Xavier’s mutants go all prequel on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

After being taken from his parents, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) demonstrates his mutant ability to the Third Reich. To hone those abilities, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) uses every means at his disposal to persuade young Eric to realize his potential. Meanwhile, privileged youth Charles Xavier discovers an intruder in his childhood home, a young girl named Raven with the mutant ability to alter her appearance at will. As adults, Charles (James McAvoy) pursues an education to help him learn more about mutation (including his own) while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) hangs on his shoulder, always in disguise but little more than an adopted sister. The life paths of Eric and Charles cross during a chance meeting while both in pursuit of the elusive Sebastian Shaw, but Shaw’s team of mutant minions facilitates his escape. To avert a global crisis, only another team of super-powered mutants has any chance of success. The hunt begins…

If you thought Wolverine being involved with the accident at Three Mile Island was far fetched, how about evil mutants provoking the Cuban Missile Crisis? After a full trilogy and a Wolverine solo spin-off, the X-men return with a tale of “When Prof. X Met Magneto.” There are a lot of characters and a lot of exposition, but director Matthew Vaughn (who helmed both Stardust and more recently Kick Ass) manages to keep things easy to follow and moving along nicely. Other than a few casting issues and some minor plot holes, the film mostly succeeds and is a worthy successor to Bryan Singer’s original vision.

It can’t be easy to cast a mutant, especially the parts already established by veteran actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender step up to fill the shoes of Charles and Eric. Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence does an exemplary job portraying young Raven (aka Mystique) to show where she started prior to where she wound up. While not physically what you would expect for the character, Kevin Bacon embodies Hellfire Club leader Sebastian Shaw as a true villain, reveling in self-righteousness and killing indiscriminately. For a telepath that can supposedly kick Charles Xavier to the cranial curve, January Jones fails to portray any of the intelligence or elegance of the White Queen/Emma Frost; it’s possible she was simply poorly written. Several of the other mutants are little more than props, so it isn’t exactly fair to judge them for more than looking their parts.

Moira MacTaggert as a CIA operative? Fans of the series (and its comic inspiration) will notice a few inconsistencies here and there, but all film franchises based on other properties tend have them. With the exception of 1960s cars and a few very short skirts, it’s often hard to tell this is a period piece other than the mutant “first class” not texting (Shaw’s sub lair, for example, looks state of the art for today’s standards even with the exception of a vintage reel-to-reel tape and an old black and white television). There’s more than a few cameos sprinkled throughout the production, but overall it was pleasant to see “X-men Begins” just to expand their re-imagined alternative universe. Where mutantkind goes from here, only Fox knows for sure.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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