X-Men: First Class

Rating: Highly Recommended

X-Men First ClassX-Men: First Class is a movie perfectly described by its title, namely “First Class Entertainment.”
Much as J.J. Abrams’ prequel Star Trek (2009) redefined that worn movie franchise, the new X-Men reinvigorates a franchise that seemed all but dead and buried.

The screenplay by Ashley Miller, Jack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Director Matthew Vaughn is shrouded with a dark, psychoanalytical angst. In particular, it graphically documents why Magneto, brilliantly played here by Michael Fassbender, grew to have a passionate hatred for mankind, becoming estranged from his lifelong friend Charles Xavier in the process.

There are many poignant moments in X-Men: First Class, but none more compelling than the scenes of the young Magneto, then known as Erik Lehnsherr, being separated from his Jewish parents in a concentration camp in Poland during World War II. You know you are not watching some typical summer action movie when you see young Erik and his screaming mother reduced to unconsolable anguish as they are led forcibly away from the other by Nazi thugs.

But the emotions flowing from what happens next is almost impossible to accurately describe. Suffice it to say that a diabolical scientist by the name of Sebastian Shaw, here played to the hilt with a subversive comic glee by Kevin Bacon, forces the future Magneto to demonstrate his mutant powers or risk watching his mother be shot to death by the grinning Mr. Bacon in his presence. While anyone familiar with the first three X-Men movies knows Magneto as the cruel villain wonderfully embodied by the performance of the legendary Ian McKellen, you suddenly understand why he became such a dark threat to mankind. You may not like the adult Magneto, but you can’t help but have sympathy for him.

James McAvoy brings his standard brilliance to the role of a young Charles Xavier, a man who wants to both help mutants and humans survive in a world where neither fully understands the other. In that sense, there is a theme running through all the X-Men movies that is timeless. Mankind has always had a tendency to mistrust, if not outright hate, those who are different than the crowd. Here in America we enslaved African-Americans for centuries; all but exterminated Native Americans while effectively stealing their land; and to this day try to deny basic human rights to gays and lesbians. In many ways, they were all mutants, although unfortunately none of them had super powers.

This X-Men also succeeds because it has some tremendous actors in supporting roles. The versatile Rose Byrne appears as Moira MacTaggert, a woman who grows increasingly protective of Charles Xavier. Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for a best actress Oscar in last year’s sensational Winter’s Bone, appears here as Raven/Mystique, the girl in blue. Ms. Lawrence perfectly embodies the young Mystique, a loyal, sensitive acolyte of Mr. Xavier whose growing disillusionment with mankind drives her eventually into Magneto’s camp.

Finally, one further word about the brilliant Kevin Bacon. Much as he did with his haughty drug dealing Lothario in this year’s still undiscovered sleeper hit Super, his villain is central to X-Men’s success. As I have noted before, no summer action film can remotely succeed without a credible bad guy, and Bacon is simply superb as a completely amoral mutant in his own right who is obsessed with destroying the human race. In that sense, he creates the best villain since the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).

The only downside to this X-Men is the comically wooden performance by January Jones as the character Emma Frost, literally an Ice Queen. Much as she did with her character in this year’s woefully underrated Liam Neeson film, Unknown, Ms. Jones reveals no acting range of any kind and appears startlingly inept. Quite frankly, as I alluded to in my review of Unknown, she still appears to be playing the shell-shocked role of Don Draper’s ex-wife in the TV hit Mad Men. Let me just say that I’m sure that she must have some acting talent, and I just wish that she would stop hiding it.

As anyone who has seen the previews knows, the plot of X-Men revolves around our mutant friends coming to the aid of mankind during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the process, they become perceived as a threat in their own right, and Magneto’s instinct is to simply wipe out the armed forces of both the United States and the Soviet Union.

When McAlvoy’s Xavier implores him to let the sailors live as they are only “following orders”, Magneto memorably responds, “I’ve heard that excuse used before.” Need I say more to convince you that you should not judge this film by its “summer action movie” cover?

So I encourage all of you to swallow your skepticism and give this movie a look. It is dark, brooding, thoughtful, engaging, provocative and extraordinarily well-acted, and that all adds up to one helluva film.