REVIEW: X-Men: First Class Looks To The Past For Answers
Following in the steps of the Star Trek reboot, X-Men takes a look back at how the mutants at the heart of the franchise came to meet one another, choose their alliances, and deal with their first semi-official assignment: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The film begins with the two backbone characters of the story, the psychic and sage Charles Xavier “Professor X” (James McAvoy) and his counterpart, the proud but vengeful metal-manipulator Erik Lehnsherr “Magneto” (Michael Fassbender).
The reboot examines defining moments in each of their early childhoods: Xavier in a posh mansion discovering his first mutant, the adorable blue-skinned shape-shifter “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence); and Magneto in a Nazi concentration camp being torn from his mother and subsequently experimented upon by the villainous Dr. Schmitt aka mutant megalomaniac, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
The story fast forwards to the 1960’s when the two are young men, Magneto hunting down former Nazis in Argentina, and Xavier receiving his professorship from Oxford. The remainder of the film follows these young men and their attempts to prevent Shaw and his mutant thugs from provoking the Americans and Soviets into World War Three.
While it is fanciful to imagine that the Cuban Missile Crisis was somehow engineered by a gang of comic book nasties and not our own global anxieties, the film takes on what may have been more that it was able to handle by setting it fifty years in the past.
Specifically, the film suffers artistically as it sacrifices authenticity for modern appeal in order to cater to the youth in the audience and never fully commits itself to the time period. The characters’ hairstyles, costumes, and even dance moves betray their new millennium origins, only reminding viewers of the setting by dropping the occasional period slang (“groovy”) or black and white newscast (John F. Kennedy addressing the nation).
Even the X-Jet looks suspiciously modern, as does much of the technology featured in the story.
And for some reason the young Magneto dresses suspiciously like a beatnik, which is in keeping with the period but… odd?
Additionally, the film must introduce an impressive number of mutants in order to have enough good mutants to fight bad mutants, allow the X-men split over philosophical differences, and kill off a couple of unfortunate mutants along the way.
The result is no one, outside of Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique, get much in the way of character development, and most of the mutants are simply defined by their powers, rather than their personalities.
However, for a special effects heavy action flick, it still manages to work in some outstanding performances, particularly between its two leads, as Xavier digs into Magneto’s mind (and the audiences’ hearts) in an attempt to calm the anger that both drives and controls the young Holocaust survivor.
Nothing can compare to the performances of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as the adult Professor X and Magneto in the original X-Men trilogy, but McAvoy and Fassbender give it a game attempt. Though they are young versions of the characters, McAvoy’s calm voice of reason plays powerfully against Fassbender’s dark determination, getting down to the more intriguing issues underlying the franchise: do we as individuals choose to accept, or fear, those who are not like us.
It is these moments that carry the film and make it worth seeing. The film may take on a lot, but in an industry obsessed with trilogies, perhaps there will be more films down the road to allow these characters room to breathe and fill a space unique from the X-Men films of the previous decade.
And for those nostalgic for the older version of the series, keep your eyes peeled, Hugh Jackman is apparently never far from the saga that has served him so well since he first donned Wolverine’s iconic claws in the year 2000.
Reach Whitney Bratton here.