Let’s take care of our primary worries first: it’s not that bad. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is decidedly superior to THE LAST STAND and WOLVERINE, and is probably also better than the original X-MEN, which was ponderous, over-serious and under-entertaining. But once again we’re stuck with origin stories and more origin stories, taking too much time showing us new mutants and explaining fancy new mutant powers rather than striking entirely into new stories and sticking with its strongest characters.
This film starts with the Holocaust scene first explored in the first X-MEN, where Magneto’s powers first manifest — and are soon tested at the hands of a very evil Kevin Bacon. This sets Erik Lensherr (played by Michael Fassbender) on a course of Nazi hunting and vengeance, like an x-powered Munich. We then spend time with young, ambulatory and coiffed Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), wasting time using his own powers to pick up chicks while hanging out with Mystique. While these early scenes don’t do very much for us in terms of charting new terrain, the acting chops of the principals are solid and passionate, and ultimately the depth of feeling of McAvoy and Fassbender carry the film through some fairly rocky moments. As the film is largely about the relationship between the two mutant leaders and their respective philosophies, these two actors serve as good anchors, although Fassbender’s intensity tends to make McAvoy’s portrayal of Xavier seem at times conceited and a little naive. By the end of the film one can’t help but think that Xavier is reckless and mistaken in his optimism for humanity, and wonder whether Magneto isn’t right. Perhaps that is the intention of director Michael Vaughn (KICK-ASS, LAYER CAKE), which is an interesting notion and could make for a compelling reboot of the series.
But I digress. The plot of the film revolves around Erik’s quest for revenge against Sebastian Shaw, who in WWII ran experiments at Erik’s concentration camp (and killed Erik’s mother). Shaw runs the Hellfire Club, a secret society of mutants who pull the strings at high levels of government and industry (January Jones plays Emma Frost, the White Queen and 2nd in command of the Club, which basically means she looks pouty, wears lingerie all the time and can turn into a chandelier at will). Together with Xavier, Erik joins the CIA, becomes an international super-spy (complete with trappings reminiscent of Austin Powers movies) and they team up with some other random and under-used mutants to bring down the Hellfire Club before they can start WWIII. It’s not a bad plot when you think about it, but the execution is a little predictable and the main story points and primary confrontations were a bit dull (swap out Nightcrawler in X2 with Azazel, and you have an entire action scene that’s basically a duplicate). But the essential conflict — Xavier vs. Magneto — remains taut and finishes well, so on the whole the film’s primary objective (KEEP THE FRANCHISE ALIVE!!!!) is completed.
The tone of X-MEN: FC is lighter than the first X-movie, roughly on par with X2 but with a bit of 60s camp and flair. There are a couple of highly entertaining cameos, and the action scenes are nice and kinetic (if a bit unaffecting). In all, a decent comic book movie, perhaps the best of the X-Men movies, but worth watching until SUPER 8 comes out next week.