© 2011 Ray Wong
Before they were X-Men, they were just kids. X-Men: First Class is a reboot/prequel of the original trilogy and the Marvel comics.
Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Bill Milner as child) is a concentration camp survivor during WWII when the Nazis collaborator Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) discovers that Erik is a mutant who has the power to manipulate metals. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Laurence Belcher as child) is a precocious, privileged child who discovers that he can read and alter others' minds. Charles befriends a shapeshifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Morgan Lily as child) and realizes he's not the only one. He decides to study human mutations to figure what is going on.
Years later, Charles successfully completes his PhD and becomes Professor Xavier, and Erik is on a mission to find Shaw, who killed Erik's mother and tortured him at the camp, for revenge. Their paths cross when Xavier helps the CIA find Shaw, who is collaborating with the Russians to start WWIII. They realize Shaw and his group of mutants would be unstoppable unless they raise their own army of mutants to fight Shaw. Using his telepathic capabilities, Charles recruits young mutants and train them.
Soon, Shaw's plan to manipulate the Russians to place nuclear missiles in Cuba is revealed. More surprising is that they discover Shaw himself is a mutant. In a race against time, they must locate and defeat Shaw before he starts WWIII. Meanwhile, despite their friendship and mutual admiration for each other, Charles and Erik have fundamental differences in their philosophies especially when it comes to the "normal" human race. Erik doesn't trust the humans and believes the mutants are a better race (which is ironic given what he went through during WWII), but Charles believes in the goodness of men and how they can all accept one another. Their differences cause a rift between them and may jeopardize their mission.
James McAvoy (The Last Station) is an interesting choice to play Charles/Professor X since Patrick Stewart played the older Charles. McAvoy is smart and unassuming. He's charming but sincere. He's the guy-next-door you can trust. McAvoy does a good job with the character, making it his own without invalidating Stewart's work. Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex) is also excellent as Erik/Magneto. He has the steely James Bond-esque suaveness and chill, but also the sensibility and heart of the character that Ian McKellen has paved the way.
Kevin Bacon (Super) once again does pure evil with relish. His Sebastian Shaw is creepy, outrageous, larger-than-life, and simply evil. Normally I rather cringe at such as two-dimensional character, but Bacon's flashy performance makes it work. Shaw is a comic villain, and Bacon gives us just that. Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) has the thankless job of playing the "straight girl" in a movie about superheroes. She's fine, but just can't rise above the material.
The mutants all have their unique abilities and personalities. Jennfier Lawrence (Beaver) is very good as Raven/Mystique. We know her from the previous movies (played by Rebecca Romijn) and Lawrence adds more layers to the familiar character. January Jones (Unknown) is fantastic as Emma Frost. Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) is effectively naive and bookish as Hank McCoy/Beast.
The list of writers including director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) may suggest a potential "write by committee" disaster. But generally speaking, the screenplay is coherent and well-thought out. There are places when the multiple threads get tangled up and become somewhat confusing. The plot that ties with the Cuba missile crisis in the 60s is somewhat contrived (seriously, the mutants with all their powers can think only of starting WWIII with a Russian nuclear missile?) Despite the corny plot and some holes, the story is by and large fluid and plausible. Though flawed, the movie's historical backdrops do give it some gravity and realism. It's as good as alternate history gets.
Most impressively, the screenplay further develops the personalities and relationships between these popular characters we have come to know and love, especially the three major ones: Professor X, Magneto and Mystique. I suppose that's the most satisfying aspect of the story. Don't get me wrong: the plot is interesting and entertaining, but it is the characters that make us care.
Matthew Vaughn's (Stardust) resume isn't that long, but his movies have not disappointed so far. X-Men: First Class continues his winning streak. His direction is fluid, brisk, and sensible. The pacing is just right, and he leaves enough room for the characters to breathe and bond and make an impression. We come to actually care about them. And that's not an easy task given the full plot and the large cast of characters.
I have to say, beside the first X-Men movie, this may be the best of the bunch. It has intrigue, mystery, action, humor, excitement, horror, and heart. It makes us care about these characters again. It's very entertaining and leaves a nice impression. It's first class all the way.
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for themes, language, alcohol, violence
Running Time: 132 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 9
Total – 7.9 out of 10