X's and evil
By Edward Copeland
I've never read a single X-Men comic book, but I loved the first two films, especially the second, though I thought the third was a miss and I skipped the Wolverine standalone movie. Of course, I doubt I'm alone in thinking that Magneto (as played by the marvelous Ian McKellen) wasn't a villain: He just argued for self-defense against those out to destroy mutants as opposed to the always conciliatory Professor X (Patrick Stewart). X-Men: First Class gives the series a welcome boost by going back and telling the story of how the group first started, when Magneto and Professor X were just young men named Charles and Erik and actually fought together.
What may be what I found most surprising about X-Men: First Class is that I think it's the first time I've enjoyed a performance by James McAvoy, who plays the young Charles Xavier who becomes Professor X. He displays a lightness and range that was missing in films such as The Last King of Scotland or Atonement. It's also fun to see the young Xavier as a partying college student in the early '60s using his telepathic powers to try to get laid as opposed to the serious man he will develop into as Professor X.
Michael Fassbender also does well as Erik Lehnsherr, the eventual Magneto, showing the World War II events that scarred him as a Jew and a tool of experimentation by the film's villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who begins the film working with the Nazis but turns out to be a mutant himself intent on starting a nuclear war by engineering the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Bacon clearly enjoys chewing the scenery in his World War II scenes with his over-the-top German accent, but Shaw has some anti-aging abilities so when we meet him again in 1962 he speaks in his regular voice, which in a way might be one of the few points of shame in the otherwise other kicky ride.
Director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed Kick-Ass which got some favorable reviews but which I never saw, keeps X-Men: First Class moving at a good pace and handles both the action scenes and the quieter ones with equal aplomb.
The second biggest surprise for me was the character of Mystique. Not being familiar with her origin, I never realized that the blue shape shifter that Rebecca Romijn played in the original trilogy, began as Xavier's adopted sister and went by the name Raven. Even more startling, X-Men: First Class accomplishes something that none of the other films did: It makes her a sympathetic character, helped in no small part by having the young adult Mystique played by the talented Jennifer Lawrence, who is about as far removed from her Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone that you can imagine, but flexes more acting muscles in this movie than all the metal the two Magnetos have bent on film.
Others delivering fine performances include Oliver Platt as the only man in the CIA who believes in the mutant and their potential as a positive asset and Nicholas Hoult, who was so great as a kid in About a Boy and good in A Single Man, as a lab geek who turns out to be a mutant and turns himself into The Beast.
On the other hand, it can be a bit frightening to see January Jones as Sebastian Shaw's mutant partner in the 1960s, Emma Frost. The thought of Mad Men harridan Betty Draper Francis possessing special powers sends shivers down my spine.
The movie also has a priceless two-word cameo that comes when Charles and Erik travel the world recruiting mutants for their program. There's a single scene with the great Ray Wise as the secretary of state, but it's not enough. You can never give me enough Ray Wise.
While X-Men: First Class isn't as great as X-Men or X2: X-Men United, the movie provides a fun ride. My one major criticism is the explanation of the split between Professor X and Magneto and how Erik becomes the so-called "bad mutant." The explanation doesn't seem to fly.
In the other films, his explanation made sense to me since there were humans out to destroy or cure the mutants. Here, in the crucial moment that starts him on that path, it simply comes from the suggestion made by the Shaw character who he has hunted down for killing his mom and experimenting on him.
Other than that, X-Men: First Class turns out to be quite an enjoyable ride.