Wednesday, June 08, 2011

X-Men: First Class / *** (PG-13)

Charles Xavier: James McAvoy
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto: Michael Fassbender
Sebastian Shaw: Kevin Bacon
Moira MacTaggert: Rose Byrne
Raven/Mystique: Jennifer Lawrence
Emma Frost: January Jones
Hank McCoy/Beast: Nicholas Hoult
Sean Cassidy/Banshee: Caleb Landry Jones
Alex Summers/Havok: Lucas Till
Azazel: Jason Flemyng
Angel Salvadore: Zoƫ Kravitz

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn and Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer. Based on the Marvel comic books. Running time: 132 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language).

“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end; then stop”
                                                                        — Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”

It seems not many people in Hollywood read much Lewis Carroll, except of course as potential blockbuster material. Here we are on the fifth “X-Men” movie, and only now are we learning “how it all began.” Unless you’re talking about Wolverine, for him it began even before this movie takes place; but never mind that. The good news is that, contrary to reports that Wolvie isn’t in this prequel, the clawed mutant is responsible for one of the best moments in this film, and he never even takes his claws out.

This “X-Men” seems like the most thought out of all the scripts. Beginning with the flashback that opened the series in the first movie of a young Eric Lehnsherr discovering the abilities that will eventually lead him to become the master mutant villain Magneto, this time we learn what happened to Eric after the Nazis took his parents away in the concentration camp. He meets a Nazi officer played by Kevin Bacon (“Mystic River”). Bacon is imposing while keeping a smile on his face at all times. He introduces Eric to Nazi coercion by shooting his mother dead in front of the boy. This unleashes Eric’s full mutant ability to move metal. This event will shape all of Eric’s actions to come.

We are introduced to two other young mutants, a boy telepath and a shape shifter. They are the first two mutants either has yet discovered. The boy comes from a wealthy family that treats him well. The girl is a runaway who has turned to crime because of her family’s rejection of her. The boy takes her in as a sister. Apparently his parents are quite absentee, such are the lives of the ridiculously rich. These mutants are Charles Xavier and Raven. They will grow up to become Professor X and Mystique.

Fast forward to 1962. Mutants are a phenomenon that is just starting to rise. Mutants are starting to reach the age of maturity where their powers fully manifest themselves. The screenwriter’s explanation of this mutant explosion is intriguing. As the world is entering the nuclear age, the fears and possibilities of a nuclear society are realized. It is suggested that this nuclear world has somehow sparked the evolutionary change that Xavier attributes to the mutations.

A rambunctious CIA agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, “Knowing”), discovers that a mutant organization called the Hellfire Club, under the leadership of a man known as Sebastian Shaw, is using their powers to influence government officials to place nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, a move that will draw the ire and retaliation of the Russians. She tracks down Xavier (James McAvoy, “Wanted”) and recruits him to head a team of mutants to work within the CIA to help address the threats of mutants using their powers against the greater good.

Meanwhile, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, “Inglourious Basterds”) has tracked down the Nazi who took away everything he loved and created the man he’s become. That former Nazi is now going under the name of Sebastian Shaw, who appears not to have aged.  Lehnsherr tries to take revenge, but hasn’t anticipated that Shaw himself may be a mutant or has gathered other mutants around him for protection. He fails in his first attempt at revenge, but is recruited by Xavier to help form the CIA mutant team.

That’s probably enough of the plot. That only scratches the surface, which explains why this “X-Men” is the longest entry yet. Another reason is that director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") is content not to rush his super powered mutants into battle. He takes great pains to develop Eric’s journey of revenge and Xavier’s theories and attitudes about mutantism. Xavier in particular is very much allowed to be a real person. Highly intelligent, but willing to bend the rules and have fun being young. He uses his mutant theories as pick up lines in bars.

Vaughn also spends a good deal of time developing the most complex personality of the group, the torn and obviously mutant in appearance—Raven (her last name is never mentioned). She’s played by Jennifer Lawrence, last year’s great discovery for her Oscar nominated performance as a teenager trying to provide for her siblings in the ruthless backcountry of the Ozarks in “Winter’s Bone”. Raven has blue, scaly skin, but can make herself look like anyone. She is in the middle of an ideological tug of war between Xavier and Eric. Xavier believing that mutants should integrate with humans, while Eric’s beliefs run more towards embracing their mutantism at the expense of fitting in.

Another mutant, a scientist named Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, ”A Single Man”) intrigues Raven. Hank is another mutant whose mutation has manifested itself in his appearance. His feet look and operate like hands, with opposable thumbs. After he takes a “cure” that is supposed remove surface mutant characteristics but allow him to retain powers, Hank’s mutation somehow becomes even more obvious when he grows blue hair all over his body. The two brush at a romance, but eventually Raven’s beliefs are shifted closer to Eric’s views, and she decides to embrace her true appearance.

There are a great deal more mutants introduced in this origin episode of the series, including Havok (Lucas Till, “Battle: Los Angeles”), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones, “The Last Exorcism”), and the villainess Emma Frost (January Jones, “Mad Men”). To list them all would be pointless and require more synopsizing. Despite all these characters and plotting this “First Class” doesn’t have the overstuffed feeling of the third installment, “The Last Stand”. Vaughn’s insistence of allowing the story to develop, rather than driving it with loud and explosive action sequences gives more weight to the story’s social themes of bigotry and tolerance.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great action sequences. The final showdown set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis is fraught with the anti-authoritative tensions of the era. It exemplifies the types of events and fear that inspired the creation of such comic book characters as the X-Men. It even contains some awesome images. With all the characters and special effects and the wide range of thematic material the filmmakers try to cover, some elements get left a little underdeveloped, such as Xavier’s relationship with MacTaggert.

Some people may not take to this vision of the X-Men as readily as the previous outings. It’s more cerebral, with a much stronger focus on the characters and themes of the series. To some the ever-unfolding plot may seem to drag, but this is the X-Men as they should be presented. They’re more than just a team of super powers. Each character has always held very specific purposes in the X-Men universe, and it’s nice to see a comic book mythology represented so faithfully on screen. But, I’m beginning to wonder whether this series will ever end, since this material has been fairly well covered by this point. Could Carroll have been onto something?

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