Being a mutant can be pretty awesome. Just ask happy-go-lucky playboy/genius Charles Xavier. He uses his mind-reading powers to pick up chicks in bars, cause, hell, what else would you use mind-reading powers for? Exactly. It’s twice as awesome when you land a power that doesn’t involve you turning into a furry blue hairball or a scaley, blue fish-looking lady. In those cases, maybe being able to hop around like a big ape ain’t so hot. Or hey, how about the ability to control metal? Chicks dig a guy who can toss around cars, or so I’ve been told. Of course, there will be people jealous of your power. Heck, they might even fear you. (Guys that can shoot plasma bolts out of their chests can be a tad disconcerting to sit around during dinner.) What then? Well if you’re a Holocaust survivor like Erik Lehnsherr, you crush them; but if you’re more like Charles Xavier, who has grown up in the lap of luxury (albeit with wayward parents), you try to change their minds. Thus, the dilemma. And the conflict. The dilem-flict, if you will.
Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” explores the dilem-flict through the eyes of its two main leads — well-to-do telepath Charles Xavier, who would later be known as Professor X (James McAvoy), and master of magnetism Erik Lehnsherr, who would eventually adopt the more awesome-sounding moniker Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Vaughn’s “First Class”, written with his familiar partner-in-crime Jane Goldman (with assist from producer Bryan Singer, who at one point was also supposed to direct), charts the early days of Charles and Erik during the ’60s as they are forced by circumstances to form the very first X-Men. It’s a rocky start for the duo, and the growing threat of an all-out nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union hangs in the background. Meanwhile, a nefarious group of evildoers calling themselves the Hellfire Club and led by the charming Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an old foe of Erik’s, plots to ignite a civil war between humankind and mutants.
With over two hours to play with, “First Class” certainly allows Vaughn the luxury to slowly introduce and then bring his two main protagonists together. When we first meet them, Erik is looking for former Nazi guards to exact a little good old fashion revenge on. Charles, meanwhile, befriends a fridge raiding Raven, and the two become fast-friends and even sister-brother, though Raven seems to want more. Erik’s revenge-minded fantasies and Raven’s “Oh to be like everyone” are major themes in the film, and makes sense given their eventual growth into the Magneto and Mystique that we’ll come to know in later “X-Men” movies. The mundane normals are introduced via the intrepid Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), here changed into a globe-trotting CIA agent rather than as the scientist from the comics. You don’t really get much whiff of a romance between Moira and Charles, who she recruits to help battle Sebastian Shaw and his killer mutant army.
As Origin Stories go, “First Class” serves its purpose to re-acquaint us with Professor X and Magneto, before expanding on their initial meeting (each men going after Shaw’s group for their own purposes), evolving friendship, and eventual parting of ways. The catalyst is Shaw, played with killer charm by Kevin Bacon, whose powers make him pretty much invincible to most forms of direct attack. His soldiers are less charming, but effective as fodder for great action scenes. January Jones looks good in a variety of tight wardrobe as Emma Frost, a telepath who can also, when the need calls for, turn her skin into diamonds. Jason Flemyng as Azazel, a red devil-like teleporter who may or may not be Russian; honestly, he has so few lines that I can’t tell you for sure. And finally, Riptide (Álex González), who has even less lines than Azazel. We know they’re evil and they want to start a war between us lowly mortals so they can “live like kings and queens”, and that’s pretty much it. Hey, they’re comic book bad guys, what more do you want?
With a Hollywood budget at his disposal, Vaughn provides plenty of fireworks in terms of action. Most of it is very slick, with Azazel’s teleporting powers in particular put to great effect. Comic book fans will certainly not feel cheated at the big-screen visuals of Emma Frost going all “diamond” (or, ahem, strutting around in those tight outfits) and Magneto throwing things (and people) around make for some cool action sequences. And while there are no cameos by Stan “The Man” Lee, Vaughn and his writers do stuff the film with plenty of other notable uncredited appearances, but of course I won’t spoil any of them for you. One in particular, in a bar, should bring down the house, though it probably goes on for about a couple of seconds longer than it should. And although it takes some liberties with its familiar characters, “First Class” is surprisingly more congruent with the rest of the “X-Men” movies that have come before it, with the notable exception being Beast’s relationship with Mystique, which still makes no sense in context with the other movies. On the other hand, you do see the origins of everything from Cerebro to the X-Jet to Magneto’s famed helmet.
There is a lot to like about “X-Men: First Class”, from the excellent acting by leads McAvoy and Fassbender to the swanky ’60s soundtrack that also includes some inspired split-screen action, especially during the training montages. The mutant high kids that are recruited to battle the Hellfire Club also get plenty of screentime, or as much as can be afforded to supporting characters, anyway. Curiously, all of the young mutants appear to be Americans, including Sean Cassidy aka Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), who has always been Irish in the comics. The kids do alright, although Jennifer Lawrence in her first big role is somewhat grating with her constant sour puss face and bitching. Making a much better impression is Nicholas Hoult, who hits it out of the park as the shy, awkward, but absolutely brilliant Hank McCoy aka Beast. Some familiar X-Men kids that don’t make it into the movie are seen in cameos, so pay attention to Professor X’s first use of Cerebro about halfway into the movie.
Perhaps appropo to the period in which the film is set, “X-Men: First Class” is actually quite brighter and more optimistic than I had expected, especially compared to the tone of Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” movie. As a result, those looking for moody superheroes will be quite disappointed. Those seeking a good comic book movie that hits all the right notes and makes full use of its budget, though, will love it. Sequels are of course inevitable, unless the film stalls spectacularly at the box office, which given the good to spectacular buzz around the film, seems unlikely. “X-Men: First Class” set in the ’70s (“X-Men: Second Class”, perhaps?), will surely take on a darker, more sinister mood. I can’t wait.
Matthew Vaughn (director) / Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (screenplay)(screenplay)
CAST: James McAvoy … Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender … Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto
Kevin Bacon … Sebastian Shaw
Rose Byrne … Moira MacTaggert
Jennifer Lawrence … Raven / Mystique
Oliver Platt … Man In Black Suit
Álex González … Janos Quested / Riptide
Jason Flemyng … Azazel
Zoë Kravitz … Angel Salvadore
January Jones … Emma Frost
Nicholas Hoult … Hank McCoy / Beast
Caleb Landry Jones … Sean Cassidy / Banshee
Edi Gathegi … Armando Muñoz / Darwin
Lucas Till … Alex Summers / Havok