Premiering this weekend on Cinemax was last year’s superhero epic, “X-Men: First Class”.
“First Class” was a prequel/reboot of the “X-Men” franchise, which offered us four movies of varying quality from 2000-2009. Recasting the lead roles, “First Class” turns back the clock to the 1960s, and tells the tale of the origin of the X-Men, the formation of the friendship between Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr, and their battle against Sebastian Shaw.
Released in a year which saw several high profile superhero movies, “X-Men: First Class” found a way to elevate itself above its contemporaries and surprisingly emerge as the best superhero flick of 2011.
“X-Men: First Class” tells the origins and/or early years of a number of high profile X-Men characters, including Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Eric Lensherr), Mystique, and Beast. It also introduces a set of new ones in Emma Frost, Havok, Banshee, etc. For the most part, the movie focuses on the forming of the relationships between the characters as opposed to the typical how they got their superpowers.
The villain for this installment of the franchise is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw is an extremist mutant. He believes that the dawn of the atomic age triggered the wave of genetic mutations responsible for mutant-kind. Thus he plans to trigger a nuclear war, believing mutants will survive – even flourish – while humanity would be destroyed. Of course, it helps that his personal superpower is energy absorption… it’s a nice personal failsafe to have. Shaw is aided in his quest by the telepathic Emma Frost (last year’s MAJOR AWARD Winner for Worst Actress for this role), the teleporting Azazel, and the whirlwind creating Riptide. Together, in an enjoyable bit of revisionist history, they manipulate both sides of the Cold War and bring the world to the edge of Armageddon via the Cuban missile crisis.
But Magneto is hunting Shaw. As a boy, Erik Leshnerr was interred in a German concentration camp. There, his powers escape his control and are revealed. Shaw, then a Nazi, tries to force young Erik to use his powers by threatening, and eventually killing his Mother. It’s a crime the boy will never forget… and now that he’s grown into his mutant powers, he’s out for revenge.
He fails in his first attempt to exact it, however, he is saved by Charles Xavier. Xavier is a young freewheeler in those pre-wheelchair days. Together the two recruit some young mutants, while working in conjunction with the CIA and Moira MacTaggert on “Project X”. Eventually these young mutants head with Xavier and Magneto back to Xavier’s estate to train their mutant powers, becoming in effect, the first class of mutants at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Between Shaw, Xavier, and Magneto, there’s plenty of discussion about mutant-kind’s place in the world. The issue as to whether or not mutants can co-exist with humanity is given plenty of discussion. The students join in, as they all feel ostracized from society to a degree by their looks or powers… and struggle with their identities. It’s these deeper discussions that elevate “X-Men: First Class”. The movie has a few good action sequences, but (to me) they’re nothing really exceptional. What is exceptional is the weight and tone of the film. Supported by first rate performances by McAvoy and Fassbender, along with Jennifer Lawrence (who gives an excellent turn as a young Raven Darkholme, who feels vulnerable due to her scaly blue natural appearance), the movie feels a step above a typical mindless action film. These characters have issues to grapple with, and in watching them struggle with them, you get to know and care about the characters.
Credit should be given to director Matthew Vaughn. He did an excellent job balancing the action and intellectual discussion, character development and conflict. The past two installments of the X-Men franchise have been lesser offerings, and it was refreshing to get one that lived up to the promise of the first two.
I’ve heard that a sequel is in our future, and to me, that’s excellent news.