The X-Men film franchise occupies a special place among superhero movies. Bryan Singer's X-Men, released in 2000, sparked the comic book revival we've witnessed in Hollywood over the last decade -- for better and, often, worse. That movie and its sequel X2: X-Men United remain part of the gold standard for comic book movies, while X-Men: The Last Stand and spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine remain among the worst examples of what a Hollywood devoid of original ideas can wrought on the silver screen.
So, it was in that context -- along with fond memories of the long-running 1990s X-Men Saturday morning cartoon show on FOX -- that I strode into X-Men: First Class this weekend with high hopes.
First Class has a number of things going for it. The trio of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique is quite a promising one, and director Matthew Vaughn has made some of the best action films in the last 10 years, including Layer Cake and Kick-Ass. And for much of the movie that combination worked swimmingly. Moviegoers are treated to the full backstory on the emergence of mutants, from the familiar discovery of Lehnsherr's power to manipulate metal at a Nazi concentration camp to the mostly unfamiliar Xavier, who learns of his telepathic powers at a young age, realizes there are others like him when he stumbles upon shapeshifter Mystique in his kitchen, studies at Oxford and then cobbles together a team of mutants for a reluctant CIA to fight the threat posed by Sebastian Shaw.
Shaw, played capably by Kevin Bacon, is Lehnsherr's tormentor -- the killer of his mother -- at the concentration camp, but it turns out he's a mutant as well, one that can absorb kinetic energy and then retransmit it with violent efficiency. He's interested in Lehnsherr not because he is a Hitler devotee, but because he wants to know more about the next stage of human evolution. Some 15 years later, Shaw has assembled his own team of mutants that seeks to manipulate the extinction of "ordinary" humans vis a vis the Cuban Missile crisis.
As you might expect from Vaughn's previous movies, pace and humor are not a problem in First Class, and those two elements are key to any big-screen action flick's success. Xavier and Lehnsherr are quickly united when the former prevents the latter from drowning as he tries desperately to reel in Shaw's depth-diving submarine, and from there Xavier manages to convince Lehnsherr to join his team despite the serious ideological differences the two have about the place of mutants amongst humanity at large. They're both out to stop Shaw after all -- the enemy of my enemy and so on.
Xavier and Lehnsherr set about recruiting young and promising mutants to counter Shaw, and this is by far the most enjoyable part of the movie, especially the moment when they try to get Wolverine on their side and, in a surprising cameo, Hugh Jackman tells the pair to fuck themselves. We get to see Xavier as youthful, green and even hypocritical -- a refreshing take next to the venerable, respected and brilliant later-life Professor X played by Patrick Stewart in the first installments in the series.
Xavier, not always cleverly, trains his team to harness and sharpen their powers (even Lehnsherr), and it is here that we get the best of the classic X-Men parable/allegory. Just how should mutants try to fit in in a world where they are outcasts often deemed worthy only of scorn and fear? Surprisingly, I found myself siding with Lehnsherr and Raven overwhelmingly, particularly as Xavier encourages Raven to hide her true appearance and supports Dr. Hank McCoy's efforts to isolate a serum that can "cure" his and Raven's unique look.
I have no problem siding with Lehnsherr; perhaps it was by design that Vaughn made Xavier so naive, implying that even the great Professor X once had something to learn and that Magneto, evil though his aims may be, has always had a point. In fact, the only real problem I had with the movie was the final 15 minutes, which was full of cliche and cringeworthy lines, including McAvoy channeling his best Jesse Spanow and declaring, "I can't ... I can't feel my legs," after a stray bullet paralyzes him, and a laughable makeup job on McCoy/Beast, who looks like Teen Wolf dyed blue.
Magneto ends up killing Shaw, nuclear war is averted and, after a showdown between Xavier and Lehnsherr on a Cuban beach ends mostly peacefully, their always-thin friendship is broken and mutants begin to take sides, presumably setting up a number of sequels that will eventually require another reboot when directors less talented than Vaughn inevitably become involved.
Overall, X-Men: First Class represents good summer fun -- the type of action movie we're all looking for when the heat gets to be too much and we need a cool, entertaining reprieve. But, oh, what might have been had Vaughn and Co. spent a little more time polishing the climax.