by Tim Ross
As Hollywood digs deeper for fresh ideas and moviegoers tire of filmmakers trotting out less-than-stellar sequels, the prequel has become a new way to reintroduce old products to audiences. Many prequels have done little to spark new interest in a franchise, but several recent successful origin tales do come to mind.
The Batman Franchise has been retold in fantastic fashion with “Batman Begins,” and “The Dark Knight,” the 2009 version of “Star Trek” is a fine origin tale and now “X-Men: First Class” can be added to that list.
Like its title, this X-Men genesis flick is a first class effort to answer many of the questions fans have about their favorite mutants and how their loyalties came into being. How did Magneto become a complex villain-advocate for mutants? How did Xavier end up in a wheelchair? Why did Xavier and Magneto become adversaries and how did their associates choose sides?
Large questions like this and many smaller curiosities are answered in nifty fashion in “X-Men: First Class,” which also does what all the films in the X-Men franchise do best – it explores the pain and humiliation of discrimination.
Director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz know a good foundation when they see one, so they don’t mess with the formula all the X-Men films have shared. They mix incredible special effects and huge action scenes with careful examination of how all the major characters deal with life as mutants.
What’s the use of a superpower if you’ll never have love? Or children? Or a normal life? These are fascinating questions and Vaughn succeeds in striking a balance between answering them and providing the audience plenty of popcorn blockbuster action.
Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a brilliant young mind who recognizes he’s different and that there are others like him. He sets out to find as many mutants as he can to help them understand who they are and how they can live in harmony with non-mutants.
One of his first discoveries is Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who can become the blue-tinted Mystique at will. Raven and Xavier travel the world in search of mutants and soon become aware of the powerful Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). Erik is different because his incredible power of manipulating objects with magnetism is fueled by anger.
Xavier knows all the mutants feel anger, shame or loneliness and works to help them control their powers and their view of themselves as monsters. He teams with a CIA researcher (Oliver Platt) who’s been studying mutants and together they streamline the search process. Their quest yields a batch of young mutants and Xavier’s budding enterprise of pupils begins to grow.
In the meantime, tensions build between Xavier and Erik over how mutants should assimilate, but their friendship remains. How that friendship devolves and sides get chosen is a fun and fascinating journey.
And all of this is set against a backdrop of a growing Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, nuclear dawn and the notion of the destructive effects of labeling others without understanding.
And Kevin Bacon’s in the mix as the first mutant villain, Sebastian Shaw. Bacon revels in the role and plays it with the verve and heightened realism of a James Bond villain. In fact, he has high tech gadgets, a secret submarine and a tall, blonde sidekick (January Jones), just like many villains from the Bond films. Even the credits evoke comparisons to the Bond franchise. That choice seems deliberate on the part of Vaughn and it works.
The acting is solid top to bottom and Jennifer Lawrence, who is currently filming “Hunger Games” in our area, is a 20-year-old superstar in the making.
“X-Men: First Class” is a thought-provoking summer blockbuster that takes itself seriously while also having fun with the popcorn movie genre. Enjoy the ride.