636 – X-Men: First Class (***)

Look! Another hot chick! Coincidence, I assure you. Image from letsnottalkaboutmovie.blogspot.com

This prequel to the popular series is better than I expected, especially considering class is never officially in session during the movie. It’s another origin film designed to show us how the original X-Men came to be and how their founder, Charles Xavier, teamed up with Erik Lehnsherr to thwart a thermonuclear war in 1962. Along the way, we learn about the Erik’s inner demons and thirst for revenge and Charles’ implacable sensibility.

I was interested in seeing this movie not just because I wanted to know how it all began but because I was already emotionally invested in the series, having seen four X-Men movies just in the past decade or so. That’s how Hollywood is getting you nowadays, you know. Make a big movie, then make a sequel, then a prequel, then a spin-off, all designed to keep you coming back, because you know each character and recognize a bit of yourself in them as well. Here, you have the dark side (Magneto) and the light side (Professor X) – much like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films, right? A classic setup.

We learn that Erik, later to become Magneto, is a concentration-camp survivor who saw his mother shot to death when he could not perform his extrasensory powers to the camp commandant under duress. Now he is out to find that commander, some twenty years later. Alternatively, Charles is a ladies’ man who’s also exceedingly bright, working on a theses about genetics. He’s a telepath and wishes to learn more about genetic mutations. His childhood friend Raven has her own mysterious powers – in her true form she is entirely blue with red hair, a striking if possibly unwelcoming figure.

The unifying agent that brings Erik (Michael Fassnbender) and Charles (James McAvoy) together is one Sebastian Shaw, played by an oily Kevin Bacon. Shaw’s plan is to get the US and the USSR to declare war on one another, thus wiping each other out, thus (apparently) leaving only mutants, who shall inherit the Earth. Erik wants to kill Shaw; Charles simply wants to stop him. They’re consistently at odds with each other as they recruit other mutants to their cause in 1962, even as Charles helps Erik break down his own barriers to harness his powers.

This gets the CIA involved (Rose Byrne), and then there’s a well-done standoff at the US-USSR blockade showdown (you know, the Bay of Pigs) that tests the wills of everyone involved. I liked that; good action.

A recurring theme in the X-Men movies is the battle between being who you are (i.e., a mutant) and being accepted by society (i.e., a mutant who looks like everyone else). It’s not hard to draw a comparison between being a mutant and being “different.” Do you want to just fit in, or do you want to be your own person? Raven, aka Mystique (played to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t sure, either. Neither are some of the other mutants, leading to a schism that would later show up in each of the other films.

First Class isn’t really anything special, but it’s pleasing to the eye (both in effects and in cast choice) and keeps true to its familiar characters. It fits in fairly seamlessly with the other films. It’s easy to follow, of course, and the cast does a very fine job. McAvoy seems to be getting better with each role (good thing, because he was one terrible actor when he started); Fassbender, Lawrence, even January Jones (as Emma Frost) are fine as well.

X-Men: First Class: ***

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