X-Men: First Class

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday June 3, 2011

Michael Fassbender in "X-Men: First Class"
Michael Fassbender in "X-Men: First Class"  

How best to reinvent a flagging franchise? Go back to its roots. That's the approach that Marvel's X-Men films take with "X-Men: First Class", its fifth installment, which goes back in time to show how the mutant superheroes came to be. Haven't you wondered how Professor X ended up in that wheelchair? Or what's behind his long-standing feud with Magneto? This film provides the answers, and does so in a spectacularly entertaining fashion.

Like the first film in the series, this one begins ominously in a concentration camp. Here the evil Nazi Dr. Schmidt (a deliciously over-the-top Kevin Bacon) sees something unusual in a young prisoner, Erik Lehnsherr, and puts him to a harrowing test. Schmidt gets his answer - that the boy has unusual super powers - but also earns him the hatred of boy, who sets out as a young adult to destroy Schmidt and his Nazi drones.

Schmidt, it turns out, has morphed into Sebastian Shaw, a villain worthy of James Bond, who has his own plans for world domination; that is if only he can turn the Russians and the Americans, already on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, to go over the edge. Set in 1962, specifically at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "X-Men: First Class" does feel like a Bond film come-lately, especially when the adult Eric (a dangerous and sexy Michael Fassbender) appears to something of a Bond-clone. But Shaw has a few supernatural tricks up his sleeve, including an uncanny ability to inhale energy and use it as a weapon; and to defeat him Eric needs the assistance of mutant expert Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).

Enter the CIA in the person of an eccentric scientist (Oliver Platt) who sets the mutant pair into a special enclave to figure out a way to destroy Shaw who is off canoodling with the Russians. Joining them is Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier's childhood friend who can morph into any human form, but isn't at home in her natural state of leathery blue skin; which touches upon the series' ongoing theme of the mutants being outsiders, unable to find acceptance in themselves or the world at large. The analogies to being gay have been obvious from the start of the series and they are present here, even joked upon. When the CIA-employed Dr. Henry "Hank" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) comes out as a mutant, his boss (Platt) asks him why he never said anything. "You didn't ask, so I didn't tell," Hoult replies.

But unlike the previous films, the darker themes feel a bit muted, swept along by the deft, swift direction of Matthew Vaughn, who never dwells on any one thing for too long. Instead, as he showed in last year's "Kick-Ass," that the key to the success of this kind of film comes with confrontation, and there's plenty of it on display here. As the Russians move their missiles to Cuba, the American counteract with a blockade; working not-so-stealthy behind the scenes are Xavier and Eric, uneasy allies each with their own agenda.

Along the way any number of mutant superheroes are introduced: some good, some bad. That they are mostly teens who would be right at home at a Lady Gaga concert is one of the film's missteps - this is the early 1960s and there is little of the period in their portrayals; still they bring a raffish energy to the mid-portion of the film and, in the end, are pivotal in the alliances that we've seen in the earlier released films. One of the more poignant subplots concerns how the brilliant scientist McCoy deals with his mutation - not as he wanted, it turns out.

Some may find the film lighter in tone and more conventional in attitude than its predecessors, which is something of a good thing. It does have an old school-style of a Cold War thriller (this time with mutants), but is smart enough to touch upon the bigger themes of the rivalry between humans and mutants (and the mutants themselves) that is integral to the franchise. It is also terrific looking - superbly evoking the period, even films from the period: not only the Bond films, but also when the American military leaders sit in their war room, "Dr. Strangelove" immediately comes to mind. And when Bacon orders January Jones (as the volatile mind-reading Emma Frost) to get him some ice, you can only giggle at this sly reference to her "Mad Men" role. That she has to scrap it off an iceberg lodged next to the submarine in which they're traveling only makes the joke even funnier. "X Men: First Class" does exactly what it needs to do: jump start the franchise in a kick-ass fashion.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].