Jun. 08, 2011 - Issue #816: Hot Summer Guide
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
The origin story starts with the twin strands of the mutant world—Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), soon Magneto—spiraling around each other. Vengeance fuels Erik after his electromagnetic power's spotted in a Nazi concentration-camp and the Jewish boy watches Dr Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) kill his mother as punishment for Erik's failure to demonstrate his gift. Meanwhile, rich kid Charles, after befriending Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), gains his doctorate from Oxford but has yet to realize his own potential as a leader and telepath—until he's approached by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), looking for help in bringing down Shaw, now bent on starting a war between the USA and USSR.
The nightmare of the Holocaust and spectre of nuclear armageddon prove perfectly chilling, all-too-real atmospheres swirling through this early '60s saga of genetics, xenophobia and warring powers. The mutant concept's always worked best as an allegory for prejudice, and moments here in pre-Civil Rights America and on Cold War battlegrounds reveal how hateful and divisive the world still was, 17 years after the Second World War.
While the action zips around the globe like a Bond film, the story remains focused on revenge, bigotry and the distorted notion of "potential"—whether that's nuclear potential annihilating humans and launching mutant supremacy (Shaw's wish) or humans and mutants co-existing peacefully (Xavier's ideal). Even such clichés as the team's training sessions are enlivened by snappy pacing and writing. (Raven and Beast's anxiety about looking different just fizzles into the usual teen angst, though.)
The intensity of Fassbender's performance also anchors the movie—Erik can never be trusting of a humankind that showed him only fear, hatred and mass murder when he was a boy. It's this unsettling lack of faith in us, in just how much we've tried to Hyde our savage, destroy-what's-different natures beneath a Jekyll veneer, that marks X-Men: First Class as a movie far more interesting, and mature, than most comic-book flicks: it refuses to say it's so super being human.
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
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