Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy),
and their fellow mutants in X-Men: First Class.
Like an oasis in the middle of a desert, X-Men: First Class is a refreshing treat during one of the most disappointing movie summers in recent memory. It takes a franchise that was left for dead and breathes new life into it, setting a new standard for the X-Men films. I can't say enough good things about it. The action is terrific. The period setting is inspired (and makes me excited for Captain America). And the film features two of my favorite superhero movie performances ever. Best of all, however, is Matthew Vaughn's direction. He gets the tone just right, and the film's pacing is perfect. If only all blockbuster directors would take a page out of his playbook, I'd be a lot less grumpy this summer. But I'm finding it hard to complain right now. This film wipes away many of the bad memories of Thor, Super 8, Green Lantern, and everything else that I skipped entirely. I just might see it again next time I'm feeling down on the summer of 2011. It's that good.
The film takes us back many years to the height of the Cold War, before most mutants were even aware of one another. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), whose power is to read minds, has just received his doctorate and is recruited by the CIA to assist them in tracking Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant hell-bent on rounding up more of his kind and going to war with humans. With the help of his closest companion, a shape-shifter you might know as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), he joins the American government and begins working to track down Shaw. Also on the trail of this dangerous criminal is Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor whose mother died at Shaw's hands. Lensherr has no political motivations; He just wants to kill Shaw as brutally as he can. But when Lensherr and Xavier cross paths for the first time, they both realize they can do more as friends than as antagonists. So they start gathering other mutants to take on Shaw and his growing army and stop his diabolical plan to destroy the human race.
X-Men: First Class has been described in many circles as a James Bond film. There definitely are shades of that in the script (and Fassbender seems itching to replace Daniel Craig as the British superspy). I guess I was reminded a little more of Revenge of the Sith. We know how this tale ends, and it's not exactly happy, but getting there is richly satisfying. The relationship between Lensherr and Xavier is real (like Obi Wan and Anakin, except these two are on a level playing field), and the stakes should they fail are enormous. But they just don't see eye to eye on the most important issues, and that threatens to drive a massive wedge between them--the kind of wedge that would turn Lensherr into the Magneto we know from the original trilogy.
As far as action sequences go, X-Men: First Class is top-notch. The climactic submarine sequence (which implies that mutants saved us from the Cuban Missile Crisis) is a sight to behold. Everything that I hated about the action in X-Men: The Last Stand is gone. In its place are coherent, yet joyfully over-the-top action scenes that prove Vaughn knows what he's doing. If you didn't buy into his talents after Kick-Ass, you can't deny them now. This dude is here to stay.
The film isn't perfect. January Jones' Emma Frost is a lame edition to the cast. Kind of like Mystique in the original trilogy, she's on the bad side, but she's not especially intimidating, and we don't get enough of her or her back story to really care. It doesn't help that Jones inexplicably has zero charisma and screen presence. And speaking of Mystique, I also didn't care for the way she was treated. Jennifer Lawrence's performance is serviceable, but a far cry from what she does in Winter's Bone. But my big issue stemmed from her relationship with Xavier. The two meet as children and become the closest of friends, yet while he becomes a powerful CIA operative, she plays around with the other teenage mutants. I didn't get the point of the character, and I didn't totally buy her turn, especially when she seemed to have several "good" individuals who believed in her to confide in and trust.
Kevin Bacon makes a great villain. Sebastian Shaw is foaming-at-the-mouth evil, and Bacon takes the opportunity to just own the screen. He's much more menacing than, say, Brian Cox in X2--or even someone like Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2. The real acting standouts, however, are Fassbender and McAvoy, and their performances are two of my all-time favorites from the superhero genre. The former is suave, but intense. We feel years of pain and anguish in him every time he appears on screen. And we sense he's very torn. He doesn't necessarily disagree with Shaw's anti-human politics, but his allegiance is to his friend, Charles. McAvoy, playing Charles, is Fassbender's equal in every way. He's the sensible one in the group, but he's not afraid to put himself on the line for his fellow mutants or his human friends. If forced to choose, I'd say I was more taken with Fassbender's work, but he's playing my all-time favorite comic book character, so it's kind of hard to screw it up. Props to both men, though, for making this film as good as it is.
I hope Vaughn and team continue to explore this First Class world. The dynamics are fascinating, and the possibilities seem endless. Plus, it's much more interesting than the lame Origins series. This film, besides standing out as the likely best of the series, also stands as the year's best popcorn flick so far. It's charming, exciting, and entertaining as hell.