We all bring our baggage to movie adaptations of comic books, terrified that filmmakers will eff up the stories we hold dear. They’ve certainly done it before, so my Marvel-leaning friends’ concerns about X-Men: First Class were understandable. Whenever I said that the movie looked like a winner, at least one person would reply, “I doubt it.”
But how can you not be the tiniest bit excited by those trailers showing the early days of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, the future Professor X and Magneto? They’re fascinating, storied characters, and even though origin stories are kinda played, this is one we haven’t seen onscreen before. It’s not a flawless movie, but it is stylish, frequently thrilling, and supported by some excellent performances. It’s also got a great surprise up its sleeve with a cameo no one in the audience saw coming.
One of the most powerful scenes from the first X-Men movie was young Erik’s separation from his mother in a World War II concentration camp. Here, we learn more about the stunning cruelty he endured, and how those events unleashed his mutant gifts. Charles, protected by his great privilege and brilliance, grew up with a decidedly more benevolent view of humankind. It’s a delight to see him as a rakish, fully ambulatory young man, charmingly portrayed by James McAvoy. Charles was a pimp in the Cold War era.
But the shining star of this movie is Michael Fassbender, who is gangsta as the man who will become Magneto. You do not want to be a Nazi in his path, because your death will be spectacularly and painfully executed, pun intended. Fassbender plays Erik as a seething, steely-eyed soul who has one mission: Killing Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the monster responsible for his suffering. I expected a more elegant, chilling performance from Bacon, but the scenery on that set must be shredded from him chewing it. Fortunately, that does nothing to diminish the intensity of Erik’s hunt — and it is most definitely a hunt. (By the way, Fassbender is as hot as Miami asphalt in August. It’s completely believable that he would age into that fierce lion in winter, Sir Ian McKellen.)
Charles becomes Erik’s savior in more ways than one, and their relationship is the heart of X-Men: First Class. As they recruit younger mutants to nurture, train, and work with, they become brothers separated by philosophy. Interestingly enough, Charles is the person responsible for Erik discovering the depth of his power. It’s touching to watch him help Erik push past his doubts and perform a feat he never thought possible. Sebastian opened the door through cruelty. Charles kicked it down with kindness.
The younger mutants are a colorful supporting crew, and you can sense their exhilaration as they learn to use and control their powers. After years of longing to fit in, they’ve found a home and a family. That is, until circumstances force them to choose sides and grow up fast.
The movie’s artful use of anti-mutant sentiment as a symbol of bigotry is certainly true to the history of the comics, and it remains moving. Part of Charles’ motivation for assisting the U.S. government during the Cuban Missile Crisis is to prove that mutants are allies, not evil freaks. But Mystique, his adoptive sister, questions whether he can fully relate to the struggle. The world has been kind to Charles because, as far as humans are concerned, he’s an attractive, aristocratic white man. The blue and scaly have a rougher go of it.
As one might expect, the early 1960s aren’t exactly paradise for females, traditionally appealing or otherwise. Sebastian doesn’t consider companion Emma Frost, dully presented by January Jones, to be an equal. She can read minds and turn into a living diamond, but as far as he’s concerned, her job is to follow orders and keep his drinks cold. It’s really too bad that Jones doesn’t bring more haughty oomph to her complex character.
Despite those glitches, X-Men: First Class is a hugely likable, accessible blockbuster that’s clearly setting up for a sequel. More mutants? Yes, please.