X-Men: First Class
Action, Drama, Fantasy. 2011, U.S., 131 Minutes, directed by Matthew Vaughn
Medium: Currently in Theaters
Rating: 3.5 (5-point system)
Well, here we go again. Another summer blockbuster review of yet another comic book-inspired superhero. Or, in this case, an ensemble cast of superheros.
Sorry. Things still haven’t changed since my review of Thor. I’m still a DC guy over Marvel. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this particular movie. I actually did, and for the same reasons Thor really stuck in my side like a thorn.
Whereas Thor sacrificed story for special effects, X-Men: First Class is a movie rife with plot and character development that also just happens to contain a lot of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). This is precisely the kind of movie to which I was referring when I said that Thor failed where the first Iron Man and the most recent two Batman movies succeeded. That’s not to say I didn’t wind up suffering from SFxF (Special Effects Fatigue) by the end of the film, because I did. And ultimately that is why I deducted half a point from my overall rating here. But more on that in a moment.
The Backstory: Adolescents Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) are the flip sides of the same mutated coin. Both are growing up during World War II. But whereas the former is a child of wealth and privilege with a deep sense of empathy toward others fanned by his ability to read minds, the latter is molded by the inhumanity and horror inflicted upon him during his stay in a German concentration camp, where he mother is callously killed before his very eyes when the young Erik Lehnsherr is unable to demonstrate on command his ability to move metal objects by mentally generating and manipulating magnetic fields.
The Set Up: The U.S. is threatened by a sinister band of powerful mutants headed by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant himself with the power to store and then redirect energy. Professor Charles Xavier of Oxford is tapped by the CIA to assist in identifying, locating, and bringing together a band of benevolent mutants to combat the threat. Meanwhile, Erik Lehnsherr is a man on a mission. He travels the world seeking to avenge his mother’s death by finding and then killing the man who murdered her—former Nazi researcher Sebastian Shaw.
The Meeting: Charles convinces Erik to join forces with him in his search for other mutants. Together they form a CIA training camp to harness and focus each mutant’s special ability. As Charles assists Erik in refining and directing his own powers, the two become the best of friends. But there is a hidden tension between them. Charles is convinced that mutants will one day be accepted into society, whereas Erik believes normal humans will forever fear and never tolerate in their midst beings capable of such awesome powers.
The External Conflict: Set amid the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crises, Charles and Erik lead their newly formed team of mutants in an effort to stop an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. Opposing them are Sebastian Shaw and a team of equally powerful mutants bent on starting World War III in an effort to eradicate the normal humans who fear and and despise them, and to accelerate the mutation process among survivors through environmental radiation.
The Internal Conflict: Never let it be said that Stan Lee doesn’t understand the basic appeal of the tragic Shakespearian hero. And in X-Men: First Class his characters and their deeply rooted angst and divergent backgrounds really display this fundamental understanding. I don’t want to give away critical plot elements here, so I’ll just say this: By the end of this film you will understand how such close friends become such bitter yet respectful rivals. You will also discover the origins of Charles’ paraplegic, wheelchair-bound existence, the beginnings of the Xavier Institute where mutants are trained while simultaneously being protected from a hostile and fearful public, and Erik’s transformation into the helmet-wearing, human-hating Magneto.
So . . . what’s not to like? A lot, unfortunately. Superman very nearly gets away with his fantastical powers because he’s an alien. Spider-Man makes it work because his powers are limited, and were brought about by exposure to an external influence. Iron Man successfully portrays at least a modicum of realism by obtaining his “abilities” through mechanical means. Batman has them all beat because he’s merely a superbly athletic individual proficient in the martial arts and backed up by all the wonderful toys that a wealthy billionaire can afford. Additionally, each and every one of these examples has an Achilles’ Heel—from a vulnerable love interest, to Kryptonite, to the need to maintain a secret identity. Also, each displays a flawed and perhaps at times even wimpish alter ego. Clark Kent is a timid, almost painfully shy reporter. Peter Parker is a bullied, nerdish student whom girls ignore. Tony Stark is a philandering egotist of monumental proportions. Bruce Wayne is also a wealthy playboy who puts forth a persona that prefers the flash of a Lamborghini to the philanthropy of a social cause. No such limiting considerations are evident among either the X-Men or their mutant opposition. Each is powerful beyond all reason, and thus all believability is destroyed in the process. And this is where the film fails, at least slightly. All that wonderful setup and backstory are squandered in the ridiculous battles and displays of incredible power that hijack the last half of the motion picture, only to be redeemed at the very end by the eventual tragic, heartrending split between Charles and Erik. Thus, you have what should have been a solid 4.0 rating getting knocked down to a rather tepid but still encouraging 3.5.
Is it worth seeing? You bet. Is it great cinema in the summer blockbuster tradition, or even in the superhero genre? No way.