Not since 2003 have we been graced with a truly good X-Men movie, but it seems the curse of the Wolverine has been lifted, for X-Men: First Class is a film that has evolved beyond its ancestors, a film that is equal parts entertaining and compelling, that portrays relatable, human (technically non-human) characters while still placing the fate of the world in their hands. Somehow, amidst a profusion of by-the-numbers superhero movies, a mutant has been born, and its power far exceeds that of the average cinematic experience.
One of the main reasons this film succeeds is because the CGI battles take a back seat to more poignant scenes about mutants grappling with their place in the world. The villain Shaw (Kevin Bacon) believes humans and mutants will never be able to coexist, and since his power allows him to absorb energy, he attempts to provoke Russia and America into nuclear war. In one fell swoop, the war will wipe out a huge percentage of humanity and at the same time provide Shaw with nearly limitless power. The backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a parallel that casts a thought-provoking light on the difficulty of coexistence. For once, an X-Men movie’s plot is poignant and metaphorically effective.
[Mini Spoiler Alert] And it thankfully chooses not to focus on Wolverine for a fifth time. After eleven long years spent watching Wolverine carcajou his way through his problems, it was a nice change of pace to have Hugh Jackman’s role cut down to about 15 seconds of screen time—just long enough to drop the PG-13’s one F-bomb (and it’s a great one). Other than that, however, we’re met with an entirely new cast who manage to make us truly feel for these mutants. [End Mini Spoiler Alert]
James McAvoy steals the show as a young Charles Xavier. He’s a walking, charming, drinking, womanizing piece of brain who just so happens to be a telepath. It’s nice to see that he’s not that different from us, really. The so-wise-he’s-untouchable Yoda version of Professor X from the prior films is gone, and in his place is someone you feel you could get along with at a party, though he’d probably beat you in a chugging contest. I never truly understood Xavier’s idealism before, but McAvoy shows us that doing the right thing can be a struggle. Xavier feels what all others feel, remembers what they remember. When he reads Magneto’s mind, he is filled with just as much rage, and yet he is somehow able to still walk the path of righteousness. When I noticed how deeply I was reading into his character, it became apparent that this film was incredibly well written. How do you write dialogue for someone who is able to empathize completely with everyone he meets? Personally, I don’t know (and as an aspiring screenwriter, this distresses me), but these guys nailed it.
While there are epic stakes and CGI mutant powers aplenty, this film is mostly about the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto. Luckily, Michael Fassbender does just as well with Magneto as McAvoy does with the Professor. The two have a genuine rapport, and Fassbender perfectly straddles the line between evil and relatable. After witnessing his life story, you can’t really begrudge him his actions. His parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis left him broken, a man for whom “peace was never an option.”
The movie seemed not to want me to have peace either, since right about the time Magneto’s explaining his situation, I felt this itch on the top of my big toe. I go to scratch it with my flip flop, but I guess there’s a shard of glass in the bottom and I manage to impale it into my foot. Honestly, this must have been poison glass or something, cause suddenly I’m in excruciating pain and can’t focus on anything except not disgracing myself by whimpering like a little girl. I quickly determine the only course of action is to turn on my phone and use the light to perform some mid-movie surgery. But as soon as the phone boots up it gets all the messages it’s missed for the last half hour. “DROID!” it yells. “DROID!” Then “You dare speak to me.” Everyone at the theater’s pissed and I’m bending over in my seat using this totally ineffective light to try to pick some glass out of my toe that feels like it’s been dipped in some terrible, scalding acid. It was HORRIBLE. Now I’m at home writing this review and my foot just keeps getting bigger. I guess I’m a lot more like Beast than Wolverine. Huge feet, terrible at healing.
Speaking of Beast, I found his romance with Mystique to be uncharacteristically weak. For a film so good at delving into the hearts of its characters, I was disappointed to see their love story reduced to nothing more than a high-school level cliché. I get it, you’re both blue and neither of you can accept what you’ve become. But if the civil rights movement has taught us anything, it’s that you’re not required to have sex with people who are the same color as you. Branch out a little, blue folk. Then again, this was the early 1960s, so maybe they were just taking care to avoid any anachronisms. Either way, their potential relationship was nothing more than Mystique fawning over Beast with endless doe-eyed gazes just because he also didn’t fit in. I guess he’s probably into the doe-eyed thing though—deer are beasts, right?
Poorly executed romantic entanglements aside, Mystique still brought a good deal of heart to this film. One of my favorite aspects of the X-Men franchise is that Magneto the villain and Xavier the hero share a close bond. Good and evil are more subtle here, shades of gray drawn with the ink of human emotion, rather than unrealistic characters who embody pure justice and malice. X-Men: First Class delivered on this complicated relationship more successfully than I could have thought possible, perfectly portraying the way two groups can be enemies in intent and method, but friends on a personal level. It was in this way that Mystique’s presence was so compelling, for she and Xavier are foster siblings, yet in the end, she sides with Magneto, unable to come to terms with the world Xavier is working toward, a world in which mutants may forever remain downtrodden. The two siblings still love each other, but they are unable to reconcile their differences, and their parting is a touching moment.
Real issues, real relationships, real badass. I never thought I’d like another X-Men film, but it turns out I was wrong. The actors nail these roles, and the script is fantastic, actually making you care about its characters in a way that no superhero film ever has. It’s a great movie!
Alignment: Spectacular Gold (It just squeaks into the low end of gold. Still, an impressive feat for a superhero movie.)
How did a bunch of drunk kids pick perfect character aliases first try every time? Mutants with powers that make physics look like a set of suggestions is one thing, but there weren’t any mutants with the power of overwhelming creativity on the team, were there? WERE THERE? Ok, sorry. Maybe this is just hitting a little too close to home.Follow @russnickel