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A Mutant Admiration Society

MOVIE REVIEW
X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-men-first-class-james-mcavoy-michael-fassbender
Murray Close/20th Century Fox

“X-Men: First Class” is the crowning achievement of the mutant-superhero franchise thus far, a rejuvenated enterprise with a new director and cast and a story worth telling. Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake,” “Kick-Ass”) takes over and makes a film all his own, an efficient and emotionally affecting character-driven spectacle that is enhanced but not overwhelmed by its elaborate action scenes.

Set mostly in 1962 as the Cuban missile crisis dawns, the film depicts the beginnings of the X-Men, paralleling the early years of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with those of his great friend and ultimate foe Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Charles is an astute, confident academic with a degree from Oxford; Eric is a Holocaust survivor driven by anger and bent on revenge. Their interests converge around one Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a megalomaniac mutant with world-domination plans and enough influence with the Soviets and the Americans to covertly pull them off. Xavier is recruited by the C.I.A. to help stop him and Eric wants him dead for personal reasons: he’s the ex-Nazi who killed his mother.

Interwoven therein are the stories of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and others recruited by Xavier and Magneto to join the C.I.A.’s burgeoning secret mutant operation. The screenplay — credited to Mr. Vaughn and three other writers — astutely works the wide character framework into a compelling narrative with considerable stakes.

The back stories are well-established, sporting differences in tone and feel: Charles, for example, comes from a world of classrooms and wood-paneled pubs, while Eric’s early globe-trotting scenes play like an espionage thriller. The actors bring such masculine conviction to their parts that the characters’ great friendship turned rivalry rings true. It’s easy to understand the reasons they’re drawn together: Eric gains a measure of inner peace from Charles, while the latter learns steely combative toughness from the former.

At the same time, the movie credibly applies the framework for the overarching moral debate that defines this iconic series: the question of the proper ways for mutants to relate to the humans that don’t understand them.

Shaw — maniacal, confident and boasting the all-too-useful nuclear-age power of being able to harness and expunge unlimited energy — is a credibly imposing villain. Nobody does sleazy better than Mr. Bacon. When his character sits next to right-hand woman Emma Frost (January Jones) on a sleek white couch inside the retro swinging-’60s living room of his submarine, gleefully gazing at the nuclear posturing being depicted on his little wooden television, he’s like the world’s creepiest pimp. It’s all caked in a well-defined period setting that’s never obtrusively conveyed; and the film is unafraid of exploring the global tensions, gender politics and bureaucratic jockeying that defined government life during the era.

The action is of considerable scope and rendered with fast-paced artful pizzazz. Yes, there are inherent obstacles “X-Men: First Class” can’t overcome. Chief among them is that it’s yet another comic-book movie in a terribly oversaturated market. But it’s hard to conceive how it could have been done much better.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

Opens on June 1 in Britain and on June 3 in the United States.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by Mr. Vaughn, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman, based on a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer and the Marvel Comics series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by Lee Smith and Eddie Hamilton; music by Henry Jackman; production design by Chris Seagers; costumes by Sammy Sheldon; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman and Mr. Singer; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: James McAvoy (Charles), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), January Jones (Emma Frost), Oliver Platt (MIB), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank/Beast), Zoe Kravitz (Angel Salvadore/Wings), Jason Flemyng (Azazel), Lucas Till (Alex Summers/Havok), Caleb Landry Jones (Cassidy/Banshee), Alex Gonzalez (Janos Questad/Riptide) and Edi Gathegi (Darwin Armondo).

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