X-Men: First Class
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I used to read “X-Men” comics in high school, and I know many other people who also used to read about the exploits of Professor X and his not-so-merry band of mutated superpowered humans. And while all superhero fans can relate to this following phenomenon (indeed, as can anyone who has seen a remake or an adaptation in recent years purely for nostalgia), there’s something about the geek lifestyle that is akin to being a lapsed Catholic, or an ex-military type, or a retired athlete. You may have given it up, or mellowed in your adolescent passion, but you’re still kind of in it. So even though I no longer closely follow the X-Men with the passion I once did, I still find that I kind of care about the fate of these characters. If you were once an “X-Men” fan, wither of the comics, the cartoons shows, or the movies from the early 2000s, Matthew Vaughn‘s “X-Men: First Class,” the fifth film in the “X-Men” franchise, will kind of strike a chord with you. You may be able to recognize that it’s a bit silly, and it has some really awful lines of dialogue, but you’ll probably be squealing with pleasure somewhere deep inside you.
But enough of nostalgia. About those awful bits of dialogue. “X-Men: First Class,” which takes place in the early 1960s, will go a long way to make itself feel authentic and engaging. It’ll cast a talented and soulful young actress like Jennifer Lawrence, who actually seems to bring some bits of depth to a blue-skinned shapeshifter. It’ll show that one of the more practical uses of having psychic powers is an ability to seduce babes in a bar. It’ll also show a mildly harrowing scene in which an evil Nazi kommandant (Kevin Bacon) will kill a young boy’s mother just so he’ll show off his abilities to bend metal with his mind. But then it’ll say something so dumb and adolescent that all its structure and drama will stumble. Some examples: “You can’t hurt me when I’m in diamond form!” “I can absorb energy directly into my body!” “A new species is being born! Help me guide it!” Essentially any line of dialogue that deals directly with the superpowers. There’s an extended sequence where the young teenage X-Men, assembled for the first time, are hanging out in a CIA rec room (complete with pinball machine and jukebox!), and are drinking and casually choosing their superhero names and showing off their superpowers, and its an entirely awkward scene, which only serves to connect the film to the comics.
So, yes, “X-Men” first class is a prequel that details the formation and the first adventure of the X-Men which took place in the early 1960s, most notably during The Cuban Missile Crisis. I do like this conceit. It gave the filmmakers an opportunity to do some period set design (which they didn’t necessarily take full advantage of), and show a little bit of fun revisionist history; it turns out the Russians were manipulated by an evil mutant (Bacon), and his band of wicked mutants (including non-actress January Jones as a lingerie-clad psychic who can also turn into diamonds, a teleporting demon who looks a lot like Alan Cummings’ character from “X2: X-Men United,” and a guy who can throw tornadoes). The evil mutant would destroy humanity so they may ride up from the ashes and take over the remaining mutant population. How the mutants will survive the nuclear holocaust is not something he’s given much thought to.
On the American side of things, the CIA (represented by Rose Byrne) has linked up with an ambitious young college grad named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and his shape-shifting sister Raven (Lawrence) in order to stop them. Charles has also recently met Erik (Michael Fassbinder), who is on a private quest to hunt down and kill the Nazi kommandant we saw at the film’s opening. It’s said in dialogue that the two become fast friends, although they spend most of their time having brief and not very deep arguments about violence vs. non-violence. I know much of their ideological conflict has been explored a little in the previous films, when they had already become Professor X and Magneto, but it hurt to see that it was given so little service in this film. Aside from a Vulcan mind meld late in the film, they don’t seem to have any moments of closeness.
Also on the good guys side is a team of people who have little to say. There is Hank McCoy (the insanely attractive Nicholas Hoult from “A Single Man”), who has big mutated feet and who can run really fast. He’ll eventually mutate even further and grow blue hair all over his body. There’s a guy who can grown rocks on his body, a guy who can blow stuff up with glowing hoops of destruction, a gal with dragonfly wings and the ability to spit fireworks, and a redhead slacker type who can emit supersonic screams. I have seen most of these characters in the comics, but they’re given so little distinction here, they may as well be defined by their superpowers.
When it comes time for the actual showdown between Russian and American ships, and the secret cabal of warring mutants in between, it feels strangely schizophrenic. Part of it is fun and exhilarating speculative fiction. Part is over-the-top silly. I reacted to both, I’ll have you know, so I’m not going to be cynical and adolescent and declare it “horrible.” I actually kind of enjoyed the film, and enjoyed everything they set up. They just didn’t do so well in masking the sillier elements on comic book imagery. In fact, when it came time for the characters to choose sides at the end, it felt less predicated on their moral choices and important decisions, and more like kids picking dodgeball teams. Now we have Good Guys and Bad Guys. I wish it hadn’t been so rushed.
The film has some excellent cameos, notably from actors like James Remar, Michael Ironside, and Ray Wise. There are also a few cameos from actors who previously appeared in other X-Men films, and I will lave those for you to discover. One of them, though, is truly golden.