X-Men: First Class
Three stars (out of 4)
We interrupt this summer of blah sequels and pointless remakes for some astonishing news. It turns out even cash cows can moo intelligently.
X-Men: First Class is the welcome case in point, a blockbuster with brains.
So much so, in fact, that newcomers to the X-Men saga might well be advised to do a little advance homework, or risk missing all the subtle connections and foreshadowing of things to come.
The movie is a reboot of a Marvel Comics franchise that had worn out its welcome, to the point that even a 2009 prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, felt like X-cess baggage. Maybe not at the box office, where sameness often sells, but certainly in the hearts and minds of many fans.
The new film, set mainly in the Cold War combustion of 1962, is the second prequel and numerically X-Men 5, but it doesn’t feel like it. Director Matthew Vaughn brings similar freshness to this comic creation as he did to Kick-Ass, and manages to do so while hewing to the saga’s serious dramatic intent.
There are no winks in First Class, apart from an amusingly rude cameo from a key future player and ripostes about Prof. Xavier’s inevitable hair loss. Indeed, the film’s two main characters, James McAvoy’s Charles (later Prof. Xavier) and Michael Fassbender’s Erik (later Magneto), seem like characters out of a Dickens novel, being two mutant lads of differing birth circumstances yet following parallel (and perilous) life paths.
Playing both the best of friends and rivals, McAvoy and Fassbender are the dramatic anchors of a committee-written script that often threatens to sink under the weight of incident and personnel. They are among the top young actors of their day, able to handle the rum dialogue and absurd headgear of First Class while maintaining both their dignity and the film’s momentum.
And what momentum it is, despite the overloaded subplots and characters: First Class fairly rockets for its first hour, set to a propulsive score by Henry Jackman, as it leapfrogs from the Nazi-occupied Poland of 1944 (reprising the Auschwitz opener of the original X-Men) to the America, Russia and Cuba of 1962.
The latter three locales link the atomic brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Nazi Holocaust, achieved through the character of Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, a mutant former Auschwitz doctor turned Cold War catalyst.
He’s just a pinky kiss away from a Dr. Evil impersonation, especially when he has the sexily clad ice queen Emma Frost (January Jones, underwhelming) by his side. Yet Bacon somehow manages to retain the sense of menace in Shaw, who wants to start the Third World War so he and his fellow maniac mutants can inherit the smouldering Earth: “What will kill humans will only make us stronger.”
There’s not much logic in that assertion, or in the weak middle portion of First Class, when it suddenly turns into yet another tedious origin film. Charles and Erik take a break from forestalling nuclear Armageddon to round up and train the band of young mutants who will star in future episodes.
Their recruits represent a mixed bag of superpowers, not to mention acting skills. The two who most impress amongst them are also the most blue, both in disposition and physical colour: Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique and Nicholas Hoult’s Hank/Beast.
They carry most of the emotional load of the perpetual angst that mutants feel about being treated as freaks by insensitive humans: “You have no idea what I’d give to feel normal,” Hank laments.
But they do it well, and without allowing melodrama to overtake the thrilling finale, which bears some resemblance to the real Cuban Missile Crisis showdown, right down to the TV addresses by the real President John F. Kennedy, seen in archival TV broadcasts.
Of course, the real Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t have furry blue beasts, fireball-breathing sexpots and energy-absorbing Nazis amongst a backstage array of battling mutants.
Or maybe it did? That’s the trick of these brainy blockbusters, which are all too rare: they get you thinking about a whole other way of doing things.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for The Toronto Star.