Editor’s note: This review was first published June 3, 2011.
‘X-Men’ prequel brings series roaring back to life
Separation. Manipulation. Murder. Anger. Vengeance.
And that’s just during the first 10 minutes.
“X-Men: First Class,” an origin story revealing the beginnings of two of the most vaunted X-Men in Marvel’s cache, exerts such an inescapable magnetic force, such a riveting and moving story, you can’t help but think maybe mutants were responsible for the Cuban missile crisis. And with mutants galavanting across the world, wielding laser-beam, shape-shifting and telepathic abilities to smite their foes in explosive detail, running alongside the story of the legendary, and ill-fated, friendship of Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto), “First Class” is easily the best comic-book movie since 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” And after the tragedies that were “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” that’s saying something.
The movie opens, “Inglourious Basterds”-style, in a concentration camp in war-torn Poland in 1944. A young man is forcibly separated from his mother. In his anguish, he runs to her, only to be blocked by Nazi guards. Struggling, reaching, screaming, the young man bends the very metal sequestering him from his mother. But it’s not enough. And having revealed his power to Dr. Schmidt (the gleefully sadistic Kevin Bacon), he’s offered a way to save his mother, though the terms are cruel, tragic.
What happens next is so traumatizing, so life-altering, it forever changes the trajectory Erik Lehnsherr follows. It is what makes him who he is today.
Fast-forward 18 years. It’s 1962. John F. Kennedy is president. The threat of war with Russia looms.
We’re shown Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, “Atonement”) in London, studying genetics at Oxford. Having befriended another X-Men staple, Raven (aka Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”) at the same time Erik was dealing with Nazis, the two consider each other family, both hiding their true abilities.
This is where the confluence of Charles and Erik begins: In an effort to better understand genetic mutation, CIA agent Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, “Bridesmaids”) seeks Charles to help explain the intricacies. Erik (a brilliant Michael Fassbender, “Jane Eyre”) is on the hunt for Schmidt, now known as Sebastian Shaw, seeking to exact revenge. Their paths cross when Charles and Moira run into Shaw at the same time Erik does. From here, a friendship blooms.
Now trying to prevent nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia (with Shaw and his mutant friends pulling the strings), Charles and Erik team up to locate other mutants to bolster their own ranks. The goal: preventing total annihilation by a madmen bend on reigning supreme.
Along pop up some familiar faces, some not so much. But all are young, all are still hiding who they are.
This theme of acceptance, of wanting either to belong or be apart depending on the person, is a theme that runs through the entire “X-Men” series, and it’s no stranger in “First Class.” But here, the self-doubt, the sulking, the insecurities strike a chord so resonate it reminds us why we fell in love with the superhero genre to begin with.
As Xavier builds his first, unofficial class of mutants, he simultaneously sets on an endeavor to calm the storm in Erik’s heart, working tirelessly to unlock the hidden potential of his conflicted friend. His attempt to heal the hate-induced trauma, the ever-present scars is a beautiful thing, and it’s no wonder they forge such a deep bond, one that transcends their differences.
It seems director Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman have a predilection for combining fantasy with tenderness. And while “First Class” is plenty serious, there are humorous nods to the main trilogy that will satisfy the fanboys.
As the series of escalating events transpires, each step bringing the world’s two superpowers closer to war (the height of the action occurs at the most tenuous moment in the Cold War — in the waters off Cuba), it’s almost heart-breaking to see how the philosophical differences between Charles and Erik become too much. One wants peace and acceptance, the other revenge.
And although Charles becomes the force for good, with each passing moment, each agonizing sequence of events that inevitably leads to Magneto’s antihero status, you would be hard-pressed to leave the theater and not sympathize with the metal-controlling Erik.
Origin stories have the distinct issue of dealing with an established story. It’s less about what happens than how it happened. But sometimes, just sometimes, the beginning of the journey is far more intriguing than the destination. “First Class” falls into this category. The weighty themes — post-Holocaust defiance and post-Stonewall pride — are still in play, but what matters most is the human aspect.
“Never again,” Erik vows, raising the flag for all those who have ever being mistreated, ostracized, maligned for just being who they are. And in the end, you just can’t help but rally to his call, consequences be damned.
Four mutagenic stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.