A whole other kind of Cold War superpower
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 3, 2011
Judge “X-Men: First Class” not on the color of its mutants’ skin but on the content of its characters.
In Matthew Vaughn’s eagerly awaited prequel to the filmed adaptations of Stan Lee’s iconic comic books, even the strangest-looking genetic outliers take on disarmingly human frailties, quirks and admirable qualities. Charles Xavier, whose benevolent persona was channeled by a paternal Patrick Stewart in previous “X-Men” movies, turns out to have been a bit of a Carnaby Street Lothario back in the swingin’ London of the 1960s. Raven, also known as Mystique, was once just a teenage girl with skin that tended to break out (albeit in blue scales). And who knew that Magneto — Xavier’s nemesis — could be worthy not just of understanding but sympathy?
Actually, “X-Men” fans probably know all this, and they’re the ones who will be best served by “First Class,” which begins, like the comic book series itself, in 1944. That’s when a young German boy named Erik Lehnsherr watches his parents being hauled off to Auschwitz. In a fit of fear and rage, he bends the metal gate separating him from his family, commanding the attention of a scientist eager to harness young Erik’s telekinetic powers.
Twenty years later, the grown Erik (Michael Fassbender) contemplates his revenge against the man who went on to ruin his life, and who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw. Meanwhile, the genially telepathic Xavier (James McAvoy) is earning his doctorate in genetic research at Oxford, with his shape-shifting friend and surrogate sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), by his side.
Then what? Things happen, taking “First Class” on a whirlwind tour of Las Vegas, Argentina, Russia, Miami and finally the waters just off Cuba where — what do you know? — Shaw turns out to be a shadowy Cold Warrior. (Making it all the more appropriate that his primary factotum is an ice queen named Emma Frost, played by January Jones.) While Erik obsessively hunts down Shaw for his own vengeful purposes, Xavier meets an attractive CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who enlists him to recruit genetic mutants to help her bosses stop Shaw themselves.
That recruitment sequence, by the way, is one of the funnier passages in “First Class,” featuring a cameo that will surely qualify as the movie’s most hilarious (and profane) takeaway. Mostly it’s a chance to see some otherwise little-known X-Men in their younger incarnations, including Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Angel (Zoe Kravitz), whose web-like tattoos sprout real wings, allowing her to buzz and hover like an ethereal dragonfly.
Its subtitle notwithstanding, though, “First Class” is less about the rag-tag group of disaffected teen “freaks” whom Xavier must discipline into fighting form than about the psychodrama between him and Erik, whose experience during World War II has made him more militant than the accommodationist Xavier finds comfortable. A by-any-means-necessary separatist when it comes to genetic identity, Erik doesn’t trust mainstream society to accord mutants full human rights. Xavier — whose telepathic powers are more a function of extreme empathy than more supernatural gifts — believes that assimilation is not only possible but imperative.
It would all be so much fantasy-land hoo-ha were it not for the actors Vaughn has enlisted to bring the characters to life: With his thumb poised along his limpid blue eyes, McAvoy aptly embodies Xavier’s pensive humanism. Lawrence, last year’s breakout star in “Winter’s Bone,” proves to be a voluptuous and compelling screen presence as Raven/Mystique, developing a thoroughly believable chemistry with another fresh face, Nicholas Hoult, as a young CIA researcher named Hank McCoy. (Jones, whose impassivity has bordered on the inert in similarly ’60s-kitsch “Mad Men,” here wears Frost’s white-boots-and-bras with a fembot’s stony aplomb, in another instance of pitch-perfect casting.)
In all honesty, though, “First Class” belongs to one actor, and that’s Fassbender, whose Erik/Magneto emerges as one of the most nuanced, conflicted, genuinely antiheroic protagonists in recent comic-book-movie memory. As a transparent and eminently watchable vessel for contradictory impulses — vulnerability and superhuman strength, victimization and destruction, discipline and reckless rage — Fassbender’s Magneto is not unlike Bobby Sands, the IRA activist he portrayed in the 2008 film “Hunger.” His penultimate set piece, when Magneto singlehandedly raises a submarine out of deep waters through sheer force of his will, is one of those rare instances when an authentic screen performance isn’t drowned out by sheer spectacle.
For the most part, that’s true of the rest of “First Class,” which skitters between locales and languages with sometimes confounding, scattershot speed. Still, “First Class” happily delivers on the escapism and rich narrative texture the best of its predecessors have promised. With action, atmosphere and mixed feelings to burn (not to mention a few jokes about shaving Xavier’s head), it seems well on its way to giving the well-traveled “X-Men” franchise a resuscitating breath of genetically superior, nuclear-powered life.
Contains intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and profanity.