Friday, June 3, 2011

When someone who prefers indies and foreign films and has never picked up a comic book loves a comic book movie, that’s a very good sign. Such is the case with one of my moviegoing friends after viewing X-Men: First Class.

I don’t write reviews for people who see everything that gets released, I write reviews for people whose lives are so busy they need a decided shove in the direction of the multiplex. Well, image a blockbuster that mixes truly impressive acting, alternate history, hipster hotties, a potential apocalypse, and superpowers, all backed by a great soundtrack that sounds like a mashup of Inception and Batman.

Now imagine Magneto yanking you into the theatre by your metal buttons.

The story goes back to the younger Charles Xavier from his childhood through to the formation of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngers and the development and turn of his friendships with eventual rivals Magneto and Mystique. It takes place during the cold war, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is used in an alternate history where a villain mutant Sebastian Shaw is bent on eradicating the lower species of humans to clear the world for his own superior kind. He comes by his ethnic cleansing by way of Nazi Germany, where he did very bad things to Jews, including Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr’s mother. Basically the movie sets up the relationships in the X Men world, but in suspenseful and creative ways that keeps us interested for more than 2 hours, and with 2 great actors at the helm we can really enjoy watching.

The casting director deserves a kiss and a smack in the face.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier (who will become Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (who will become Magneto) are great. McAvoy really brings you into Xavier’s inner world of optimism and compassion. Fassbender, officially and deservedly stepping up to A list status with this movie, plays Magneto as a good man who is perpetually internally tortured, damaged, and determined for revenge. He is explosive to watch. You can’t avert your eyes elsewhere when he’s onscreen.

And Fassbender makes wreaking merciless revenge seem noble. Another case where “Kickass” and “Snatch” director Matthew Vaughn blurs the often black and white cinematic lines of good and evil to gray with success.

McAvoy and Fassbender create a great chemistry of brotherhood between the characters, giving the audience more to hope for or despair of later in the movie. When they go searching for other mutants to recruit, it’s is like watching “Mod Squad” or “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” They are so cool and 60s pretty, it hurts your eyes.

There is a scene where they share a painful memory together that is transcendent. That’s not a word you’ll see much when referring to a blockbuster or superhero movie.

You’ll spend a good deal of time wondering where you saw some of the younger mutants but knowing wherever it was you loved them. Let me put some distraction to rest: Hank the scientist with “interesting” appendages is played by Nicholas Hoult, the kid from About a Boy all grown up and pretty. Raven, Charles Xavier’s only childhood friend, is played by Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar nominated actress from Winter’s Bone, all prettied up and blond.

Kevin Bacon, while deserving an A for effort, is woefully miscast as mutant villain Sebastian Shaw. Fair or no, he’s too recognizable from his career, and he’s not nearly intense enough for the role. As Emma Frost, January Jones lacks menace (and seems ripe for an eating disorder intervention). She looks to be channelling the emotionally stunted Betty Draper with the same wooden choices as in Mad Men, like Betty woke up a mutant and she is PISSED.

There are two great cameos, one of which, based on the fanboy reaction in the audience, is just about worth the price of admission.

This prequel does have its flaws. The few scenes with just the rest of us lower humans are all a bit TV movie of the week. Both the script and the way they are filmed are cliched and trite. The end of the movie devolves into the usual blockbuster with its special effects bluster, and loses most of its visual edge.

All that takes little away from what is basically the McAvoy/Fassbender show. We as the audience, especially those who know a bit about the X-Men, are torn knowing the real ending of the missile crisis, which was good, and the inevitables that must lead to the huge rift between them. We know the bad is coming. It’s an interesting tug of war that keeps lots of the audience guessing.

For all its mythology, X-Men would still be highly entertaining for newcomers to the story. Sometimes in the increasing heat of summer we just need a movie where stuff blows up. How wonderful to have said movie also include such fine character development and acting.

These mutants should be proud, indeed.