MovieMantz Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’
First Published: June 2, 2011 11:33 AM EDT Credit: Twentieth Century Fox
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- “First Class Entertainment”
“X-Men: First Class” James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne Directed by Matthew Vaughn
In a movie season that’s overloaded with more superhero features than any other summer in previous years, “X-Men: First Class” is poised to stand out as the very best of the bunch. It’s definitely better than “Thor,” which kick-started the season on May 6, and, of course, the jury is still out on “Green Lantern” and “Captain America,” which don’t open until June 17 and July 22, respectively.
But considering that the buzz has been virtually non-existent so far, “First Class” is more than just a pleasant surprise; it’s an exceptionally strong, smart, stylish, vibrant and fresh reboot of the “X-Men” franchise. That’s good news for diehard fans who were let down by the last two sub-par installments – 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and the 2009 spin-off prequel “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
It’s also good news for mainstream moviegoers who might not have any previous knowledge of the “X-Men” films or the original Marvel comic book series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1963. That’s because “First Class” features a brainy story that explores common issues while still fitting the bill as a fun and very entertaining summer popcorn movie.
To that extent, “First Class” represents a return to form, since it matches the high standards set by the first two installments – 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” – both of which were directed by Bryan Singer. Though he doesn’t direct this time around, Singer still returns as a co-producer and story writer, and his classy touch is evident when it comes to developing an intelligent superhero story that treats its fully realized characters with respect.
But taking over as director is Matthew Vaughn, who already gave the superhero genre an adrenaline-fueled burst of energy with last year’s “Kick-Ass” (that was after he was previously attached to direct the third “X-Men,” but dropped out and Brett Ratner stepped in). Vaughn brings that sense of vigor to “First Class” with a style that honors the first two “X-Men” films while rejuvenating the series along the lines of the JJ Abrams reboot of “Star Trek” (2009).
How the X-Men came to be is the focus of the story, which takes place during the height of the Cold War in 1962. It was a time when future archenemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) – soon to be known as Professor X and Magneto, respectively – were still the best of friends, as they bonded over their mission to better understand their own powers while searching the world for other mutants.
But as their ranks continue to grow, loyalties become divided between those who follow the optimistic Xavier, who wants the mutants to use their powers to help humanity, and those who follow the bitter Lehnsherr, who fears that they will be cast out by those very same humans as freaks of nature. Can the uncanny X-Men put aside their differences long enough to help avert the looming Cuban Missile Crisis and save the world from the brink of nuclear annihilation?
If the first “X-Men” raised the bar for superhero movies in terms of story and the quality of the performances, then “First Class” follows suit by bringing the series full circle. As with the first installment, the prequel begins behind the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Lehnsherr’s power to bend metal is being abused by a sadistic Nazi doctor who is soon revealed to be a mutant himself: the energy-absorbing Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
Years later, Shaw’s evil motives bring him face to face with the X-Men, and Kevin Bacon gives a terrific, malicious, scene-chewing performance as one of the best villains in recent years (outside of Heath Ledger’s Joker). Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) is also solid as the vengeance-seeking Magneto (played in the previous films by Ian McKellen), while James McAvoy is just as engaging as the idealistic Professor X (previously played by Patrick Stewart).
Other top-notch performances include recent Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) as the shape-shifting Mystique, Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy”) as the superhuman Beast, and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids,” “Insidious”) as the CIA agent who works with the mutants. Too bad that January Jones (TV’s “Mad Men”) is the weakest link here, due to her inexpressive turn as the telepathic Emma Frost, but a couple of surprise cameos more than make up for it.
The film moves along at a brisk pace, making its 2 hour and 10 minute running time fly by so fast that it’s hard to believe there’s only one bona-fide action scene where the mutants use their collective powers as a team. But that’s a good thing, because “X-Men” lives up to its title as first class entertainment that emphasizes brains over brawns – and compared to most other superhero movies these days, no wonder it’s poised to stand out as the very best of the bunch.
Verdict: SEE IT!