Review: X-Men: First Class

Xcellence x Infinity

With that out of the way, let's talk about the movie, which manages to be the best this over-saturated genre has offered since Christopher Nolan's last contribution to it.

I know that probably sounds a bit surprising when you take into account the more recent offerings from the X-Men franchise. X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by the perennially uninteresting Brett Ratner, had all the appeal of a cracked plaster wall with one of those hideous wallpaper borders featuring ducks or the color mauve. And I once summed up X-Men Origins: Wolverine with the following haiku:

The only part that
showed any real charisma:
Hugh Jackman's eyebrow

So my expectations were somewhat circling the drain, and when I casually mentioned to the guy behind the popcorn counter that I hoped this thing didn't blow donkeys, I learned of its positive buzz. He said, "I heard it was the best of the entire series." He wasn't talking out of its ass after all.  

After that, I felt a little less dread about the whole thing. After all, James McAvoy is in it, and he's been stomping on my Anglophile button for awhile now. And the guy who plays Magneto (Michael Fassbender, who among other things played a short but excellent role in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) has deftly avoided any and all contact with the ugly stick. The same could be said for Jennifer Lawrence (in the role(s) of Mystique/Raven), who could eat crackers made out of tetanus-coated razorblades and still not be kicked out of bed for it. 

Director Matthew Vaughn is making all the right movies lately (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake), and he escapes the clutches of mediocrity by combining elements of historical fiction (namely the Cuban Missile Crisis) with the over-the-top-bordering-on-absurd fun of other superhero franchises of the 1960s. Don't expect earnest realism or historical accuracy here. If you can buy the existential plight of a chick with blue skin, then you can forgive the less-than-accurate portrayal of the day we almost nuked Russia. But X-Men First Class greatly escapes eyerolls and cynic "whatevs" on the strength and emotional weight of its lead performances.

Fassbender as the vengeance-minded Erik Lenhsherr was captivating from his first scene, as he seeks out his Nazi tormentors, applying his mutant capability of controlling metal with ass-kicking ferocity. He's mainly on the hunt for Sebastian Shaw (a delightfully menacing Kevin Bacon), whose forays into genetic experimentation for the Nazis turned him into a bit of a, to put it lightly, genocidal asshole. Oh yeah, he also killed Erik's mom, so dude was asking for it.

When Erik meets up with the suave and cocky young Charles Xavier, a non-handicapped telepath who has devoted his education to the study of genetic mutations, we can already see where things are headed. Xavier wants to cooperate with the humans and create a harmonious existence between man and mutant by forming a team of other mutants to work with the CIA. But Erik wants to avoid any possible tyranny and inevitable experimentations. As a concentration camp survivor, he has reason to be suspicious. And because we can equally understand Xavier's more compassionate and optimistic approach, we find ourselves liking and sympathizing with both men and (at least in my case) wanting to be the meat in their Bromance Sandwich.

This interplay between "good and evil" has always been the X-Men franchise's strongest point. We know they're mutants, because the ability to disagree about politics over a game of chess is clearly superhuman. These two men need and respect one another, and when their kinship inevitably crumbles under the strain of their philosophical differences (nobody's perfect), the pain feels real.

Add in the other strong performances, amusing cameos, and the way we can glimpse the seedlings of what's to come in the series we're already familiar with, X-Men: First Class grabs us hard by the collar and takes us for a seriously fun ride. I've grown weary of comic book movies. We have several more ahead of us this year alone, and next year's slate is jam-packed. I fear this one will be lost in all that noise, but am grateful to see the genre still has plenty of life in it (at least until Zack Snyder sucks it out), and I look forward to seeing what this group comes up with next.

Grade: A 

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