X-Men: First Class Review: Xavier’s Kids Graduate With Honors

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When the weather gets hot, sometimes all you want to do is hide a Cherry Coke in your purse (or man-bag; I don’t discriminate), sit down in an air-conditioned movie theater, and watch a big, flashy, over-the-top action movie. Alternately genius and goofy, carefully crafted and dripping with molten cheese, X-Men: First Class gets an A- for honoring the big budget summer movie tradition, and is worth seeing even if you don’t know Azazel from Angel Salvatore (don’t worry; I had no idea who they were either).

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The best part of X-Men: First Class, the part that truly makes the film worth seeing despite its many flaws, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as metal-manipulating mutant Magneto, or Erik Lehnsherr to if you’re nasty/a human. Magneto’s storyline dominates the first third of the film: one part Superman, two parts Quantum of Solace and a splash of Inglourious Bastards, Fassbender sketches a clear line between his defiant survivor of a WWII concentration camp, to Ian McKellan’s dramatic villain in the previous X-Men films. So much so that once his brash, vengeful Erik meets calm, collected telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), all you want to is watch them play off of each other: how mutants should live in society, how and when to use one’s power, whether revenge is ever a valid path to take. Unfortunately, they have this scrappy bunch of teenage mutants to mentor. On to the training montage(s)!

Once they are identified and recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Erik, Charles and Charles’ adopted mutant sister Raven a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) soon join forces to prevent energy-absorbing meanie Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the monster who went to insane evil lengths to develop Erik’s magnetic strength. Unfortunately, Shaw also wants to set off a cataclysmic nuclear war between Cold War-era Russia and the U.S.  I don’t know why anyone would want to rule over a desolate, radioactive wasteland rather than, say, just use your awesome mutant powers to cease control of the planet the way it is, but that’s just me. I don’t have dragon fly wings growing out of my back; I can’t judge these people.

Maybe it’s just been a while since I thought of Bacon in any other context than which actor he is six degrees away from, but I didn’t expect him to be such an charmingly charismatic, excellently smarmy villain. Bacon has the good sense to know that if the script has him playing a eugenics mastermind with mutant powers and a ridiculous mustache, he had better be a diva about it. Bacon snarls and smirks with the best of the baddies, and with the lovely Emma Frost by his side (a surprisingly effective January Jones), he makes you forget that you had never heard of his character until you started reading this review.

Admittedly, plenty of moments in the film come across as corny (Bacon’s German accent, the groovy ‘60s décor at the Hellfire Club, every article of clothing worn by January Jones ever), but these are basically balanced by the sweeping historical scope of the film. There is a particular thrill that comes with a historical “What if…?” that involves both JFK, the Bay of Pigs and a taxi driver that can grow gills.

That being said, the film isn’t made up entirely of home runs. Some of the CGI appears shockingly low-budge, Riptide’s hand-held whirlwinds and Emma Frost’s crystalline form looking particularly janky. Most significantly, the film just doesn’t have the time for us to care about all of the new mutant recruits. The previous X-Men films have had the benefit of familiarity; most people might not know Wolverine’s complete backstory, but chances are they at least know about those claws. The addition of second-tier mutants like Banshee and Havoc just seem tacked on, and sadly detract from Magneto and the future Professor X’s epic bromance.

Which brings me to the most disappointing part of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence‘s performance. How I wish this wasn’t true. Gifted with the most angst-filled story arc (aside from Magneto’s lust for vengeance), Lawrence should have been able to knock Mystique’s transformation from self-conscious girl to self-respecting mutant out of the park. It probably didn’t help that Mystique is given a catchphrase that she repeats three times, thrice as many times as any film needs a tagline, particularly one that seems calculated to nail home the similarities between gay civil rights and the rights of a fictional guy who shoots uncontrollable death lasers out of his chest. However, whether as the result of wooden dialogue or poor direction or both, Lawrence is, sadly, lack-luster. My solution? Give Mystique her own movie (just as this movie probably should have just been titled Magneto) and then take the time to give the shape-shifting due she deserves. Heck, give every mutant his or her own film, for all I care. If director Matthew Vaughn can make them as sweeping, coherent and down-right fun as X-Men: First Class, they all be worth watching.

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