Professor X meets Magneto in X-Men: First Class, a smart, action-packed, big fun prequel to the previously rather tired X-Men franchise.
This movie starts very much as the first X-Men movie did, with a young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) being separated from his parents at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. His rage and fear cause him to bend, telekinetically, the metal gate separating him from them. This time we see that a sinister-looking doctor is watching the scene from a window. Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) later tries to get Erik to repeat the performance by moving a coin, and as incentive he brings in Erik’s mother. As you might suspect, things don’t go well for her, but Schmidt is able to unleash Erik’s remarkable powers.
Elsewhere at about the same time, a young telepathic Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) awakens from sleep, sensing an intruder in his family’s massive English estate. He knows when he sees a woman claiming to be his mother in the kitchen that it’s someone else, and this is how he meets the blue-skinned, red-haired Raven (Morgan Lily), a shape-shifter. So delighted is Charles to meet someone else different like him that he adopts Raven as a sort of sister. Years later in the early 1960s, when a grown Charles (James McAvory) is studying genetic mutation at Oxford, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with him — waitressing and growing bored watching Charles hit on co-eds using his abilities to order their favorite drinks and sweet talk them.
This is more or less the state in which CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert finds Charles when she comes looking for a mutation expert. Staking out officials in the U.S. military and a shifty character named Sebastian Shaw, as Schmidt now calls himself, Moira is expecting to find evidence of spying for the Soviets. What she sees instead are mutants — Emma Frost (January Jones), a woman who can cover herself in diamonds and read minds; Azazel (Jason Fleming), a red-skinned man with the ability to vanish and reappear elsewhere, and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), a man who can create tornados in his hands. To convince her bosses that such beings are possible and are working, so she thinks, for the Soviets, she brings in Charles. But it’s Raven and her quick morphing that convinces the powers that be of what mutants can do. Though most of the CIA agents view them with fear, one of them (Oliver Platt) is convinced that their powers could be used for good, which is how Charles winds up on a U.S. Navy ship attempting to intercept a yacht carrying Shaw on the same night that a badass, Nazi-killing, vengeance-seeking Erik (Michael Fassbender) shows up to try to kill Shaw.
It is complicated friendship at first sight.
As it turns out, Shaw is poking around in both the U.S. and Soviet military establishments and planning something dastardly. Since Erik and Charles have overlapping goals (Charles: stop Shaw; Erik: kill Shaw), they decide to work together — to hunt down Shaw and to find other mutants who might want to join them. Thus we meet government scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who is supersmart and has ape-like feet; the changeable Darwin (Edi Gathegi); the butterfly-type-wings-having Angel (Zoe Kravitz); the energy-slinging Havok (Lucas Til), and the sound-manipulating Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones).
These scenes of Erik and Charles finding Angel at a strip club or meeting Darwin in a cab are charming. There’s a sense of bubbly fun — like some mod-era caper movie. At other times, we feel like we’re watching some hyper-charged James Bond movie — January Jones is particularly good at being an emotion-free icy villain assistant. Eventually, Shaw’s plan comes to a head during the Cuban missile crisis, complete with archival speeches and news footage. It could have been absurd but it all fits together nicely — seamlessly even. At over two hours, the movie never feels slow or draggy. You get your rich plot, your fun cameos, your moments of “hey, that’s how that X-Men guy got that thing” and your big action scenes too. There are two big set-piece battles and even though they are heavy on special effects, the scenes work and are as much about the characters and the tension and excitement of the moment as they are about making us believe that a girl can spit fireballs or a guy can bend metal.
And for all that the movie is a big wham-pow action extravaganza at times, it’s the relationships that take it to another level (one, for example, many many notches above X-Men Origins: Wolverine) — particularly the relationship between Erik and Charles and the relationship that Raven, who gives herself the name Mystique, has with her mutant-ness. In the latter, we get a good sense of how her character becomes the Mystique of the later movies and a nice consideration of the struggle between accepting yourself and fitting in.
The Erik and Charles relationship is truly the movie’s central delight. In previous X-Men movies, we’ve seen hints of life-long friendship and how the men’s shared desire to keep mutants safe has manifested in two different ways. Charles, here played as an almost buoyantly happy man excited about the prospect of a world in which mutants will be accepted, urges peaceful coexistence with humans and tries to help Erik find peace within himself. Erik, however, sees humans as a threat — more roundups of those who are different, more concentration camps. MacAvoy makes Charles an optimist, one who cares deeply about the soul of his pessimistic friend. Fassbender gives Erik real depth — anger but also hurt and the capacity for love. The scenes with these two men are electric and leave you cheering for both of them, even when they’re on opposite sides.
X-Men: First Class is above all entertaining — deeply, satisfyingly entertaining. It is well-crafted, well-performed example of what can be great about superhero movies. A-
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer, X-Men: First Class is two hours and 11 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox.