X-Men: First Class

The first half of this review will be as if I’ve never seen another X-Men movie.  In other words, how does this one stack up, simply as a film…

It’s pretty great.  In a better opening sequence than you usually get with these kinds of films, we see a young Erik Lehnsherr in the grip of Nazis, and a young Charles Xavier living in the lap of luxury.  Both these pre-origin stories are fun to watch, as the all-growed-up Erik (played by Michael Fassbender) goes on an awesome revenge spree, looking for the guy who treated him so horrifically back in Auschwitz, and the sort-of-grown-up Charles (James McAvoy) is on the prowl for cute British lasses.

Since this is a period film, it’s important to note how well the director (Matthew Vaughn) handled the sixties-era stuff.  It’s not played for laughs the way a film like Down With Love did it, but it carries a certain verisimilitude, with era appropriate garb and a few verbal tics that remind us when we are in history.  The music and editing even felt a little sixties, without seeming like a parody. The most brilliant part of the historical nature of the film is the idea of putting all these mutants right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As much as I loved McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s performances, no one else really shined, IMHO. I mean, I give props to Kevin Bacon for being a pretty good bad guy, Rose Byrne was fine as a CIA operative, and Jennifer Lawrence was okay as a young Mystique. But, I’m sorry, January Jones has now replaced Eva Mendes as my least favorite actress in Hollywood. Every line reading sounded like she was the check-out girl at the local Rite Aid: trying to be charming without actually connecting to anyone or showing any emotion. Blah.

Now, if you want some spoilers, keep reading…

As a prequel to the other four X-Men films, this one is weirdly uneven. There’s some super-brilliant stuff, and some terrible stuff.

I have to admit, the idea that Mystique grew up as Charles Xavier’s adopted sister is pretty great. (It also makes watching her sabotage Cerebro in the first film seem a little creepier.) The two cameos (I won’t spoil them here) were both wonderful and perfect. The introduction of Xavier’s mansion works awfully well, as does the introduction of Erik’s and Charles’s friendship.

But the filmmakers were so intent on getting us into more familiar territory by the end of the film that they shoehorned in every aspect of the mythology: the X plane, Cerebro, Magneto’s helmet, even Professor X’s wheelchair, for heaven’s sake. It’s as if during the intervening four decades between this movie and the first X-Men film nothing of substance happened to these characters, except they got older. (This wasn’t nearly as soul-suckingly horrible as the last ten minutes of Revenge of the Sith, but, really, could it have been?) It sort of makes me wonder, why bother making a Second Class? Is there any sequel potential when you’ve finished connecting this one to X-Men?

Unfortunately, some things are in active contradiction to the first trilogy. One detail that’s just mildly annoying is the character of Moira MacTaggart, who, in First Class, is played (as a CIA operative with an American accent) by Rose Byrne. In The Last Stand she was portrayed (as a neurosurgeon with a noticeable Scottish accent) by Olivia Williams, a woman only eleven years older than Byrne. Apparently, going to medical school had remarkable restorative powers on her skin, while doing something crazy to her diction. Weird.

But, more important are the problems in the chronology for Charles and Erik’s relationship. In the first film, Charles tells us that Magneto helped him build Cerebro.  Really?  It looks like Hank had built it already, and Charles just put it into a “big, round room”. Now I suppose it’s possible that Erik and Charles had some sort of rapprochement between the end of First Class and the beginning of X-Men, during which they could have worked on the Westchester version of Cerebro. But it certainly didn’t look likely, given the ending of this film.

Now, one you can’t explain away is Charles ending First Class in a wheelchair, when we saw him, standing, in both the Wolverine movie, and in a flashback scene at the beginning of The Last Stand. That detail really, really bugs me. Come on, Vaughn. Hint at his future paraplegia with some spooky foreshadowing or something. You don’t have to spit on the previous movies that way.

If I could stop myself from trying to reconcile the inconsistencies, I would have enjoyed the film a lot more. But even with those problems, I liked it.

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