The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


X-Men: First Class

The terms "prequel" and "reboot" have garnered such bad reputations that I don't want to use either of them in connection with X-Men: First Class. This is not some lame attempt to revitalize a flagging series. Instead, it uses the idea of "going back" to further explore characters and situations that have become beloved by moviegoers. (I know the comics mined this material first, but the X-Men film franchise has a lot of fans who never picked up a comic book, so that's where I'm coming from.) There are infinite ways the movie could have gone wrong, yet by combining a healthy respect for the property with a playful sense of fun, it ends up being one of the most intelligent, effective superhero pictures yet.

Set in the 1960s, First Class tells the story of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) before they became, respectively, Professor X and Magneto. Charles is a professor/telepath who has just finished an important thesis on genetic mutations; Erik is a metal-bending Holocaust survivor seeking revenge against Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the Nazi who took his family from him. A CIA field agent named Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) recruits the two men to help her with some Cold War concerns. They strike up a friendship, eventually working together to recruit and train other mutants, including the shape-shifting Mystique (Winter's Bone star Jennifer Lawrence). Meanwhile, Shaw has plans to inflame the tension between the United States and Russia for his own benefit, with the aid of diamond-encrusted beauty Emma Frost (January Jones). Charles and Erik rally their mutants to prevent nuclear war, but in the process it becomes clear that they have very different views of the role mutants should play in society. Charles feels mutants should rise to the occasion and be the most extraordinary of humans, while Erik believes that the government will simply hunt them down like freaks unless they maintain as much power as possible. If you're a fan of the series, you know how that turned out.

I've enjoyed all the X-Men movies to one degree or another (yes, even the stand-alone X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but First Class is an exceptional entry in the series. Whereas the second, third, and fourth installments increasingly went for the "thrill ride" approach, this one harkens back to the original, which had terrific action sequences, yet also spent time exploring the consequences of mutant powers and the responsibilities of those who possess them. The contrasting philosophies of Xavier and Erik are front and center here, with their young mutant protégés eventually having to choose sides. I really admire the way the story explores the formation of values, the way personal experience impacts how individuals interpret the bigger picture. Because it incorporates such things, First Class is more substantive than a typical "fight the bad guy, save the world" superhero flick.

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) provides stylish visuals and a smart pace that expertly balances ideas with excitement. Even when the mutants are battling each other or trying to prevent missiles from striking a target, Vaughn never loses sight of the story's themes. I've said it before, and I'll say it again now: action, stunts, and special effects are always best when there's a legitimate reason for them. That's exactly the case here. Everything culminates in the grand finale, which made my adrenaline pump because those elements were complimenting each other so well.

At the heart of it all is the dissipating relationship between Charles and Erik. The casting of McAvoy and Fassbender in these roles is inspired. Both actors project intelligent conviction; they are believable as mentors capable of influencing others. Fassbender, in particular, gives an attention-getting performance, as he invests Erik with ever-present righteous anger. Because he's seen the kind of evil men like Shaw are capable of, he's determined to never let another human/mutant get the upper hand on him again. Fassbender's intensity is going to have moviegoers talking all summer long. Lawrence also delivers some nice work, often buried beneath blue make-up.

There's a lot going on in X-Men: First Class. Lots of plot strands, lots of characters. During a few stray moments, I had the mild feeling that it was perhaps trying to cram in just a little too much. Despite this, the skill, energy, and fun of the movie carried it right along. Besides, I'd rather see a superhero movie be too ambitious rather than not ambitious enough. First Class takes everything I've always loved about the X-Men comic books and combines it with everything I've loved about the X-Men movies. I'm sure other critics will make the obvious remark about it being a "first class" superhero adventure, so I'll just say that the film delivers in a big, big way.

( 1/2 out of four)

X-Men: First Class is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.