When I saw that the new incarnation of the X-Men was to be released on my birthday, I knew that it was destiny. I’m not exactly a comic book junkie, but I do enjoy superhero movies, and I have been especially enthralled by all things mutant since reading Joss Whedon’s X-Men run. So I bought a ticket for the midnight showing and, as I turned 25, sat with great excitement as the Marvel logo flashed. And destiny, thankfully, did not let me down. X-Men: First Class was exactly what I wanted from my midnight summer blockbuster, a splashy action/adventure movie rooted in strong, sympathetic characters.
XMFC departs from the previous X-Men movies by jumping backwards in time, focusing on two young mutants just beginning to discover who they are. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a privileged, cocky telepath breezily comfortable with mutants and non-mutants alike; Eric Lennsherr (Michael Fassbender) is a hardened, wary Holocaust survivor who happens to have total control of nearby metals. As the two friends work together to prevent nuclear disaster – XMFC is cleverly tied in to the Cuban missile crisis – they discover their subtly different stances on mutant pride cause friction and disagreement. It’s basically Martin vs. Malcolm, only with genomes and superpowers at the center of the debate.
I want to say right off the bat that XMFC is testament to the power of casting. McAvoy and Fassbender are absolutely perfect as the young men who will eventually become Professor X and Magneto. Fassbender’s Eric (the future Magneto) is a tortured but darkly humorous anti-hero whose quest for vengeance is compelling. McAvoy, for his part, subtly but effectively evolves his character from self-absorbed pretty boy to genuine leader. Together, their chemistry creates an on-screen friendship of real intimacy and vulnerability, making it all the more heart-rending when distrust begins to sink in.
The other aspects of the movie are mostly able to keep up with the performances of the two leads. The script is witty and keeps things moving briskly, though only in the mouths of McAvoy and Fassbender do the lines actually sound profound. The action sequences, particularly a naval battle in the final hour, are properly explosive, and a whole slew of colorful and mostly interesting characters are introduced to deliver a witty line or powerful punch.*
I never felt that the bad guys really conveyed enough menace to make the nuclear war plotline terribly suspenseful. Part of that may be the acting: Kevin Bacon, as energy-absorbing mutant Sebastian Shaw, plays his character as sleazy rather than genocidal, and January Jones, as the telepathic Emma Frost, plays her character as if she was up all night receiving Botox treatments.
But that’s not a huge deal, for the real menace in the movie is, as ever, the prejudice and self-loathing the mutant community must face because they are different. The pseudo-love-triangle (“Trust triangle” might be a better term) between Xavier, Magneto, and the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) exemplifies the dilemma. Should Mystique listen to Xavier and “pass” as human? Or should she embrace her true form, even if it means the continuous enmity from the Homo Sapiens?
Big questions, and ones that XMFC doesn’t always answer without getting a little cheesy. But that all comes with the package. Overstretched analogies, bad-ass fight scenes, and lasers shooting from people’s chests were exactly what I came to see, and the stellar performances from the leads were icing on my birthday cake.
*Very few overlapping characters from the first movies, although watch for one of the best three-second cameos I have ever seen.