X-Men: First Class makes a noble attempt to fill the back stories of the two main characters of this popular graphic-novel (comic-)based movie series, that of Professor Xavier and his nemesis, Magneto. Those are big shoes to fill and unfortunately, if you have not seen the other films, or are not familiar with the graphic novels on which they are based, you may not enjoy this film very much.
That’s because the best parts of First Class are the quick asides, the inside jokes, the ah-ha moments (which are unfortunately few) that only true ‘recruits’ to the X-Men phenomenon will understand.
The rest of the film, directed by Matthew Vaughn, is a fairly ordinary story – about extraordinary people – trying to find their useful roles in a world (circa early 1960s) not ready to accept their mutated states. And while the plot spends much time on their collective angst, there is no attempt to explain why their mutations took place, which seemed a wasted plot opportunity. (Granted, there was an obscure reference to their mutations being the necessary ‘evolution’ of mankind…but instead of exploring that theme, they continued down the persecution road instead.)
The special effects are wonderful, as is the expanded role created for Mystique-- played with understanding and warmth by Academy Award-nominee Jennifer Lawrence-- who must leave her buxom blond All-American look behind and embrace her natural blue-mottled skin, while the rest of the world (and most of the film audience) stands agape at her awesome and athletic blue nakedness.
The majority of the film is spent on explaining the back story between the relationship of Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a Holocaust survivor who becomes Magneto. As with most stories of this type, these two do not just represent opposite poles: good and evil, black and white, right and wrong. There is a significant effort to establish a brotherly relationship between these two, who initially have much in common. But the eventual rift that divides them seems forced and contrived, much less dramatic than it should be, considering the plots of the successive films.
And while this film endeavors to make Magneto seem a much more sympathetic character, his newly minted minions are ruthless in their attacks on the government agents who are trying to establish a relationship with the mutants. That anger seems misplaced and unreasonable in that moment in the plot, other than to rev up the action.
And revved up action there is – plenty of it. Submarines are pulled out of the water, Mystique takes on a number of different forms and figures (clothed and unclothed), mutants fly, turn to ash and implode, disappear and reappear in puffs of smoke, mutate into diamond-surfaced creatures. And it is all so beautifully executed that we forget how difficult so many of these effects are to pull off seamlessly. Despite its lackluster plot, the film deserves recognition for the makeup and special effects that are literally dazzling.
New faces in this film series include Kevin Bacon, as the villain Sebastian Shaw, Zoe Kravitz as an Angel mutant, Oliver Platt as a sympathetic and supportive government agent, January Jones as Frost, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy the young scientist who becomes the Beast, as well as James McAvoy as the younger Charles Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Both young men give the main character roles their all, but the strong brotherly connection that the film strives for does not materialize. At best we witness a grudging respect.
Hugh Jackman makes a brief cameo appearance as Wolverine (and gives us the only true laugh in the film), and there are many other hints and portents of wonders to come, again, obvious only to initiates of the X-Man series.
Three out of five stars. Predictable action flick with outstanding special effects; safe for most older children and family members. No obvious bad language, lots of violence, but no gore. Very loud. Leave grandma home. Cue the popcorn and try to keep your disappointment in check.
Other film reviews you may enjoy:
Thor- A lot of action, and Natalie Portman, make this film tolerable, but just barely.
Last Night– playing in limited release in theatres now, this film stars Kiera Knightly and Sam Worthington. A great flick. And a good date movie.
The King’s Speech- outstanding performances by Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter make this unusual, but powerful film, well worth seeing. I predicted that it had a high probability to sweep the Oscars, with Firth a shoe-in for Best Actor. It was gratifying to see him win it.
The Black Swan- Natalie Portman won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actress in her performance in this film and she deserved it.
The Infidel – a hilarious offering from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, available now for rental or instant download on Netflix.
Win Win – Giamatti is wonderful in this film, now available on DVD.
Never Say Never – Justin Bieber, his rise to teen stardom and his dedicated fans. An interesting documentary and concert flick, fun and entertaining.
Love & Other Drugs- best for older teens and adults. Rated R for a reason. Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal are naked for most of the film.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- a real treat for HP fans