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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 22
Latest X-Men vaults to the head of the class
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Latest X-Men vaults to the head of the class

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

X-Men: First Class
Opening June 3


It is 1963. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just presented his thesis on genetic mutation at Oxford and, much to the delight of his mysterious 'little sister' Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), become a full-fledged professor. His presentation has also caught the eye of CIA special agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and she's positive he's just the man she needs to help her with a little problem involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and an influential industrialist named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is also looking for this strange, secretive Xavier, and although he hasn't seemed to age a day (if anything, he's grown a little younger), he knows Shaw is the same smiling bastard who murdered his mother and forced him to act like a trained seal for his own edifying amusement back in a WWII concentration camp. He's going to kill this man, use his peculiar skills to exact his revenge, and all those who get in his way are nothing more then collateral damage.

Things change when Charles saves Erik's life and convinces him they must join forces in hunting Shaw to uncover his plan and stop a nuclear war. With the help of MacTaggert, a nameless high-level CIA operative (Oliver Platt), and teenage prodigy Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a scientist desperately trying to contain an inner beast, the two men go on a search for others like themselves and Raven, forming a team of unique assets with abilities outside the Darwinian norm.

After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the thought of another entry in the Marvel mutant franchise - a prequel charting the origins of Professor X, Magneto, and, to a lesser extent, Mystique - didn't exactly thrill me. Yes, X-Men and X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer was returning to produce and to write the initial treatment. Yes, Kick-Ass and Stardust filmmaker Matthew Vaughn had apparently settled his feud with 20th Century Fox (he was originally supposed to helm the third one before relinquishing the reigns to Brett Ratner) and signed on to direct. Those two things didn't matter as far as I was concerned, as the previous two films were so disappointing that Howard Hawks or Don Siegel could have risen from the grave to make them and I still wouldn't have cared.

I was surprised, however, that X-Men: First Class is the first sequel (or in this case, prequel) of the summer that doesn't just meet expectations, but surpasses them. Thanks to some ingenious casting decisions, four great performances, two awesome cameos, and a script that's as intelligent and as thought-provoking as it is compelling and inspired, this movie rocks.

It starts with McAvoy and Fassbender. These two are outstanding as Xavier and Lehnsherr. Taking over for icons like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen is no easy task, yet these two don't just rise to the occasion but pole vault right over it, making the characters uniquely their own yet also feeding right into what their much-lauded peers managed to create in both of Singer's previous X-Men adventures. Their psychological duel has weight and meaning, and while the metaphors they're talking about (self, identity, gender, race, orientation) can be on the heavy-handed side, it's not like the comic book series itself was ever known for its subtlety.

Their story intertwines with Raven's, a.k.a. Mystique's, beautifully. This saga of a shape-shifter at war with her ability to look like anyone but at the same time having to become comfortable with her true demonically blue visage is nicely done.

There is a problem, of course, and it is one inherent in almost every prequel: We know how it all must end. We know Lehnsherr will become Magneto and look to destroy all of non-mutated humanity. We know Charles Xavier will face off against him by building a school for mutants to hopefully help create peace and understanding between species.

Still, X-Men: First Class is hugely entertaining much of the way through. The opening scenes inside a concentration camp between young Erik (Bill Milner) and Shaw are stunning, while the montage depicting future enemies Professor X and Magneto heading out into the world to find fellow mutants is wonderful. There are two sensational cameos that are both cheer-worthy but also move the narrative forward, and a sequence depicting Raven, Hank and a group of other fellow young mutants showing off their powers to one another is pretty darn awesome.

Vaughn handles everything with deft assuredness, juggling the various aspects of the admittedly overstuffed plot far better then I'd ever have thought possible. The movie has a glossy, slightly soft 1960s sheen, evoking early James Bond adventures, and the retro cool mixes with today's hot-button social topics with astonishing fluidity.

For all my reticence, it must be admitted that X-Men: First Class is a huge step in the right direction for a Hollywood franchise that was on the verge of sinking for good. As far as this summer is concerned, the mutants are the superhero valedictorians, and with only Captain America and Green Lantern to come, I don't see their class standing changing.

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