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X-Men: First Class

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Platt

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 6/3/11


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 2, 2011

X-Men: First Class gets to the heart of what has been lacking from the previous entries of the adventures of the team of super-humans who fight against the destruction of mankind and for tolerance and equality. It was always odd that this team, hoping to be seen on the same ground as regular, old human beings and not as freaks, spent their previous outings defined entirely by their powers while their humanity was sketched out in broad character strokes highlighted by melodramatic love triangles and battles of good and evil. This is a film that makes its predecessors' contradictory nature clear.

For here is Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), with a full head of hair and the use of his legs, just earning his PhD in genetic mutation and flirting with young women at the bar by pointing out the beauty of what others might see as abnormalities. He loves the way one coed has eyes of mismatched colors, and he then reads her mind to know just what drink to order for her from the bartender. His telepathy isn't used as a mere parlor trick but a further way to define him; his ability to see and feel another's thoughts and memories makes him wholly empathetic to others.

Over here is Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), survivor of a concentration camp, who is hunting down the various Nazi officials that oversaw the operation. As a young boy, his anger led him to perform great feats, such as bending the gates through which his parents were led, separating the family until an ambitious officer brought mother and son together again one last time. Either move this coin from his desk, he tells young Erik, or he shoots the boy's mother. The rage that results from that ultimatum becomes engrained on Erik's mind, and he can only channel his ability to manipulate metal when faced with those emotions.

These two are no longer vague representations of seeking parity or power through unity or strife but characters with decided rationales and motivations. Even if the level of other characters' own development decreases as they move down the food chain of plot importance (Some speak of their lack of feelings of worth and act upon them, others give themselves neat nicknames and show off their abilities, and one seemingly appears only as fodder for the villain (After the pronouncement that said character is dead, we half expect the follow-up to be "And we have killed him")), there is at least this conflict of ideas between its central characters playing out as though it, instead of nifty superhuman talents, is what matters the most.

After the dual prologues, the film picks up in 1962. Erik is after the elusive Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who almost two decades ago gave him that difficult task of harnessing his electromagnetic gift to save the life of his mother. Charles, meanwhile, has been contracted by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), whose sting operation a swinging club uncovers a hive of mutants instead of a den of communists, to aid in finding Shaw.

After an introductory scene in which he takes twisted theories of genetic superiority to apply to mutants, Shaw becomes a typical supervillain with a seemingly invincible power of his own: He can collect energy—whether it be a punch or an explosion—and dish it out upon his foes. His plan is equally clichéd: turn the Cold War between United States and the Soviet Union into a real one through political machinations, causing all-out nuclear devastation (His theory that mutants will survive as they are "children of the atom" sounds like something that should be tested before putting it into action). He even rides around in a nuclear submarine in the tradition of campy spy movies from the period, complete with a lounge decorated entirely in white.

In the middle point of interest is the relationship between the blue (in skin color and demeanor), shape-shifting Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who comes to be known as Beast due, in part, to his hand-like feet and agility. Unlike some of their fellow mutants, these two have obvious physical characteristics accompanying their altered genetic code, and they argue whether it's better to appear normal while being different or to embrace their quirks. On the lower end of the spectrum are Shaw's rogues gallery and Charles' team of young heroes, each with familiar abilities (teleportation, energy beams, storm-creation, etc.).

The climax, which turns that diplomatic standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis into the film's own alternate history of how mutants first become a topic of political debate, is a fine balance of spectacle and the culmination of Erik and Charles' clashing ideals. X-Men: First Class is as concerned with this dynamic as it is with (if not more so than) its comic book origin mythos, and that alone is admirable.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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