X-Men: First Class
Restarting the ‘X-Men’ franchise: McAvoy and Fassbender propel prequel
The “X-Men’’ franchise has been the silver standard of the modern multiplex comic book era. Not the “Dark Knight’’/“Iron Man’’/“Incredibles’’ pinnacle, but up there with the first few “Spider-Man’’ movies and arguably more of a class act, with its double team of Great British Thespians (Patrick Stewart as the benevolent telepath Professor Charles Xavier, Ian McKellan as the eeevil Magneto) and secondary characters that are themselves state-of-the-art special effects. That misunderstood-freaks theme can carry as much allegorical weight as you want to pile on to it, too. When a character in the new origins story, “X-Men: First Class,’’ is outed as a mutant, he mumbles with some embarrassment, “You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell.’’
“First Class’’ also extends the alienated-outsider metaphor to African-Americans (Edi Gathegi as the adaptive Darwin), Jews (the young Magneto barely makes it out of the concentration camps), and teenagers (half the cast, more or less). Everybody except women, but, hey, it’s 1962, and you can’t take the little ladies seriously unless they’re working as strippers (Zoe Kravitz as the airborne Angel), parading in their blue scaly glory (Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique) or peeling down to their skivvies and projecting themselves into a Russian general’s lap. That’s Frost and she’s played by January Jones of “Mad Men.’’ If they’re not selling martinis at the concession stand, they probably should.
The director is Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake,’’ “Kick-Ass’’), which explains the bad-lad double standard when it comes to the female characters. If you can get past that (and millions of fan-boys won’t have much of a problem), “X-Men: First Class’’ is perfectly fine summer folderol, epic enough on its own terms if not quite big enough to expand beyond its genre and matter to people who find it difficult to care about characters who spit gobs of flaming phlegm. I realize there are fewer and fewer of us, but we’re a hardy band and stubborn.
Far and away the best part of “First Class’’ is the duo cast to play young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, wary friends in the days before they became mortal foes. James McAvoy eerily captures the unyielding upper-class goodness that Stewart established in the first three “X-Men’’ movies, surprising given that the actor has specialized in attractively spineless young men up to now. (Parse the ironies as you see fit.) The vaguely terrifying control that Michael Fassbender displayed as Rochester in the recent “Jane Eyre’’ and as the British officer in “Inglourious Basterds’’ he brings to bear on Magneto, a man so obsessed with vengeance that it has warped him as completely as he can warp steel.
These two ground the film in a seriousness of purpose (not to mention posh British accents), especially during the first hour. Where “First Class’’ loses a little luster is in its choice of supervillain, a preening ex-Nazi who wants to kick off World War III. I like Kevin Bacon well enough, but we’ve all seen him in so many movies that he’s practically our first cousin by now, and he doesn’t have the heft to give his scheming the necessary uber-stature. Sadly, he comes across as Christoph Waltz’s body double.
But that’s all right, since “First Class’’ tosses mutants at us willy-nilly. In addition to the shape-shifting Mystique (given a nicely adolescent inferiority complex by Lawrence) and Jones’s diamond-hard Frost, they include Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), who might as well be called Yellboy; Havok (Lucas Till), who throws these sort of deadly laser hula hoops at unclad female mannequins; the windy Riptide (Alex Gonzalez); the demonoid Azazel (Jason Flemyng); and Beast (Nicolas Hoult), who starts the movie with mere ape feet and by the end has turned into a giant, unconvincing blue Furby.
Somewhere in the midst of this is a lone human, Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), a CIA field operative who’s the first to bring the mutants to the attention of the US government and who has a demurely professional case of the hots for Charles Xavier. Her mutant skill, apparently, is to strip down to bra and panties to go undercover in an early scene.
MacTaggart has been part of the “X-Men’’ universe since the 1970s, and Beast was on the team from the very beginning. Otherwise, “First Class’’ tries to honor the dueling canons of the original Marvel print universe and the recent movie franchise and doesn’t sprain its neck too badly. The real world is another matter; the way this movie wraps itself around historical calamities like the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which takes up the entire climax) is disingenuous and occasionally unsettling.
But, yes, yes, entertaining enough for a Saturday night, and much more satisfying than the last “X-Men’’ offshoot, the woeful “Wolverine.’’ (Hugh Jackman has an appropriately surly cameo here.) “First Class’’ handily answers such questions as “What does a yacht look like when an anchor chain splits it in two horizontally?’’ and “How many mutants does it take to kill three drunken fugitive Nazis?’’ (one), but it doesn’t have the grand sense of reinventing the pop-culture wheel that a movie like “Star Trek’’ brought to the table in 2009. It merely restarts its franchise. That’s probably all that the fan-boys and the bean-counters wanted in the first place.