X-Men First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt

Sometimes, when you’ve completely painted yourself into a corner, the best option is to go back to the beginning. The “X-Men” film series, although it has never felt completely true to the comics, had experienced a decent start before the folly of “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Though the story goes that it had always been part of the plan (as if I’ve never heard that excuse before), it still happens that “X-Men: First Class” came about at a particularly important time for the franchise. In addition to the need for a certain amount of cleansing, the “X-Men” movies had been a part of our lives for more than a decade, and the original actors were not getting any younger (a subject that will also be addressed by 2014’s “Days of Future Past”). For a younger cast to truly be accepted in these roles, you first need competent actors, and then a story that can help the audience warm up to them. How about incorporating the Cuban Missle Crisis, one of the most frightening and important events of the last half-century?

As this is a story whose focus is primarily an origin tale for frenemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), it is only fitting that the story should begin with both of them as children. We return to the scene which opened the original “X-Men,” with little Erik Lensherr being separated from his mother by Nazi soldiers in Auschwitz when his powers manifest themselves for the first time. What we didn’t see back then is that someone else was watching this happen, a Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), and he is very interested in unlocking the boy’s potential. Bringing Erik into his office, Schmidt places a coin on his desk and instructs Erik to move it the way he bent the bars on the gates outside. When Erik cannot comply, Schmidt brings in his mother, points a gun at her, and gives Erik until the count of three to move the coin. Still nothing, unfortunately for Erik’s mother. Upon seeing her dead body, Erik’s rage is unleashed and the entire room is destroyed, along with two guards. Schmidt is excited, and he tells Erik that this is just the beginning.

In England, at more or less the same time, a young Charles Xavier is disturbed from his sleep by noises in the kitchen downstairs. He is greeted by what appears on the surface to be his mother, but he quickly sees through the charade. Revealing her true, blue-skinned form is the shape-shifting Raven, she who will come to be known as Mystique. Like the Wolverine/Rogue dynamic from “X-Men,” the friendship developed between Charles and Raven is a new angle that I find to be one of the movie’s best ideas, even if it does create a few continuity problems. As the two group up together, Charles charms the ladies as a student of genetics while Raven, who in public now adopts the appearance of a beautiful blonde in her early 20’s (Jennifer Lawrence), chooses not to disguise her jealousy.

The first meeting between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr comes in 1962 when Xavier has been hired by the CIA, among them Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), to help locate the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants being led by Klaus Schmidt, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw. The group is tracked down to their submarine, where Erik arrives and tries to kill Shaw. He almost drowns in his pursuit, but for the intervention of a concerned Xavier. Together, the two will recruit several other mutants to their cause, and they will need every single one of them for the final confrontation with Shaw, whose ultimate plan is to start World War III by forcing the placement of nuclear missles by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Turkey and Cuba, respectively. The most important moment in the movie is when Xavier pulls Erik out of the water. What if he hadn’t, or had at least been too late? You’re talking about a much different universe indeed. McAvoy and Fassbender both excel in their roles. Despite the fact that the actors neither look nor sound anything like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, I still believe them.

I have only one real objection about this film: the casting of Zoe Kravitz. Actually, it’s not her so much as it is her fickle, cold-hearted and annoying character. Angel reminds me too much of the characters invented for “The Last Stand,” who possessed little personality and much anonymity. This at least is counterbalanced by Jennifer Lawrence, for whom “X-Men: First Class” served as my introduction. Hers is definitely a different portrayal of Mystique from that of Rebecca Romijn, but that’s because this is Mystique’s uncomfortable crossroads period where she had to decide where her place in the world truly lies, and Lawrence helps bring that out of her.

Perhaps my favorite of all the X-Men movies, “First Class” works both from the advantages of being a period piece and in its unashamed determination to challenge what we think we know about the history of these characters. It also raises a lot of questions which I hope will be answered by future sequels (like the one that was just released today, for example). I would have preferred that this movie had meant the start of a whole new X-Men universe, like with the new “Spider-Man” movies. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the plan, as “X-Men: Days of Future Past” directly ties the two casts together. Even with “First Class,” you get cameos from two of the original cast’s actors, cameos which are both welcome and well-played. Ever since 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” left a bitter taste in my mouth, I’ve been keeping low expectations every time another sequel pops up. I didn’t even see this one theatrically, waiting for the DVD release later that same year. I fear that the creative team, which has always been made up of mostly the same personnel, doesn’t know a good thing when they’ve got it. A+ for this effort. Time to prove me wrong one more time, ladies and gentlemen.

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