X-Men: First Class,
directed by Matthew Vaughn
(20th Century Fox, 2011)

The first, most salient feature of this prequel is that it no way compares to the first three X-Men movies. The reason why is because it's in a league of its own, being the most superior offering thus far in the highly successful franchise. A combination of incredible acting, fantastic special effects and one heck of a plot line combine to make X-Men: First Class one of the most interesting, fun and well-made superhero movies yet made. It is, in a word, simply superb.

While the first three installments are not lacking in decent stories and spot-on acting, this movie has such a different feel that it almost seems to come from a parallel reality. It is divided in half, the first part a solidly done, 1960s-style spy drama and the second half pure, nonstop comic-book action of the very best, on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind. The pacing, editing, effects and even the musical score cohere so perfectly that it certainly does not feel as though two hours has gone by. Matthew Vaughn does more than a great job. He's done something that most comic book movies have tried to do and, outside of The Dark Knight, still not quite managed: he's made superheroes look like real people with real-world problems.

I'd say it was thanks to some fantastic acting by James Macavoy as the young Charles Xavier (who will become Professor X) and Michael Fassbender as his best friend, Erik Lensherr (the future Magneto). However, this is one movie where the entire cast, right down to the bit players, brought their A-game. There is literally no one who is not watchable, from Kevin Bacon's sinister Sebastian Shaw, to young Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), to January Jones' Emma Frost, to every one of the first X-men to join together to form a team (look for cameos by Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Although the main focus is on Erik and Charles, the others aren't just there to provide set-pieces.

The plot is basically concerned with how the two very different men found their lives intertwined, and how their polar opposite philosophies ultimately created their destinies. This was glimpsed at in the first three movies but is fully fleshed out in this storyline. Erik's story is the most fascinating, with Fassbender owning so much of the movie with such effortless cool that he could replace Daniel Craig as James Bond any day.

What's even more interesting is how Mystique's story is so expertly interwoven into an already tightly wound plot full of numerous developments. She's integral to the formation of both halves of what will become the competing visions of the mightiest mutants the world will come to know.

So is the Cuban Missile Crisis, apparently, not to mention aging Nazis full of plans to destroy the free world. Mixed in with all that are Charles Xavier's attempts to found a school where mutant adolescents won't feel so different in a world that fears who they are and what they represent, which gets to the heart of what the movie is really all about. Are powers a blessing or a curse? Should you defend the defenseless, or stand apart?

The movie tackles all these questions without trying to provide neat, formulaic answers. What it does provide are open-ended questions that leave room for future development, in an intelligent, nuanced manner that avoids contrivances. Also look for connections to X2 and Wolverine: Origins.

review by
Mary Harvey

16 July 2011

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