Groovy powers, baby!
Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
Red Flags: Action violence, mild profanity, some mild sexuality
My admiration of the X-Men franchise comes not from its action but from its altruism. Its world of mutants vs. humans illuminates the nature of prejudice and xenophobia. It raises tough questions about terrorist threats versus individual liberties and gives the brain plenty to chew on.
This prequel delves into that somewhat, but its main fascination is tinkering with one of the scariest chapters in American history: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which drove the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war. X-Men: First Class retools it as a covert showdown involving maniacal mutants set on annihilating normal humanity so mutants can rule over it, uninhibited by prejudices, governments, or well, just about anything else.
The picture opens in the middle of another dark historical chapter: the roundup of Jews in Nazi Germany. A young Magneto, Erik (Fassbender), sees his mother being herded into a concentration camp and notices, in his anger, he can bend the gate that is closing behind her. The Nazis capitalize on his power and begin to refine it. Meanwhile in England, Young Professor X Charles Xavier (McAvoy) notices there's a stranger in the kitchen who looks like his mother. Only it's not his mother, it's the shape-shifting blue bombshell Raven (Lawrence). And Charles can tell just by reading her mind.
The young Xavier grows up to be a hip professor in 1960's London, authoring theses on mutation and cruising chicks in a way Austin Powers would love. This whole film at times reminded me of a mash-up between the Austin Powers movies and Mad Men, with a bit of The Avengers thrown in. A CIA operative comes to Xavier for help when she notices plans for world domination forming in the back room of a Las Vegas club. They involve a high-ranking U.S. officer and a devilish creature who can disappear into thin air in the blink of an eye. Erik is on his own mission, setting out to kill the Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) who built up his metal-warping skills while killing his mother.
These two missions come together, and so do Charles and Erik in a tenuous friendship laced with questions about men versus mutants. Will mutants be ultimately feared or accepted? Will the be assimilated into society or exterminated? Along the way, we're introduced to several new mutants, including one who can evolve on the spot and an oversized dragonfly. They will team up with Charles to form a squad charged with saving the world. Not bad for a first assignment.
I liked the picture's 60's vibe, and I liked its balancing of ideology and action. It's not at the level of Batman Begins, but it's there, and it's palpable. The film leaves some more room for development down the line, and I'm sure we'll see another sequel or spin-off film. Hugh Jackman, by the way, makes a brief cameo as Wolverine. But don't expect much.
X-Men: First Class is satisfying in that it makes you want more. You know that these characters will grow up, grow older, and become more interesting over time. Then again, you've already seen the four other pictures and know what happened. Yet Hollywood can re-do established film series in a short time frame, as it did with Batman and will soon do with Spider-Man. Comic books truly do exist in a world of their own.