X-Men: First Class (United States, 2011)

June 03, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
X-Men: First Class Poster

The easiest way to summarize my reaction to X-Men: First Class is with a shrug. The movie is competently made (and not in 3-D, thankfully), has some nice action sequences, tells its story with workmanlike efficiency, and will probably please fans of the comic books. None of these things, however, could chase away the feeling of indifference that settled over me as I watched the movie unfold. X-Men: First Class is not only a prequel to the popular cinematic series about Charles Xavier and his merry band of mutants, but it's an "origin story." And therein lies the problem. Origin stories, by their nature, are less about telling compelling tales than assembling all the pieces. In road trips, the journey matters more than the destination. In origin stories, the journey is irrelevant as long as, when it comes time for the end credits, everyone is where we expect them to be: Kirk in the captain's chair with Spock and McCoy by his side, Spider-Man swinging from New York City's skyscrapers, Superman soaring high over his adopted world, Batman giving the Bat Signal to Commissioner Gordon. When Bryan Singer made X-Men in 2000, he wisely dispensed with an origin story, deeming it to be unnecessary and constraining. He got right into the meat of the action. Now, some 11 years later (with Singer back on the team, this time functioning as a producer), we're paying for that decision.

After a brief opening in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland during World War II, the movie fast-forwards to 1962, which some have called the last year of American innocence. Sure, the Bay of Pigs was behind us, but JFK's assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate were still to come. X-Men: First Class interweaves established textbook history with comic book mythology, providing a new spin on events. Although not as radical as what Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds, it's still intriguing. The bulk of the movie concerns the efforts of newly-minted professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), in his capacity as a CIA advisor working with agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), to assemble a collection of mutants capable of opposing ex-Nazi megalomaniac Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Xavier's most powerful ally is Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), whose magnetic control over metal needs some refining. Erik has a strong personal motivation for bringing down Shaw, who killed his mother. Erik doesn't much care whether his dish of revenge is served cold or hot, as long as it's served. And that's where he and the mild, peace-loving Xavier part ways in their personal philosophies. Xavier believes that, once Shaw is out of the way, humankind and mutantkind will be able to live in peace. Erik, on the other hand, embraces the necessity of violence and believes that a global war is inevitable.

Between special-effects heavy fight scenes (some of which echo some of the most outrageous action from the '60s James Bond movies), X-Men: First Class is laden with exposition, much of which will be of limited interest to the X-Men novitiate. It's a strangely talky motion picture that tries to advance several philosophical themes; these would have been more interesting if we weren't already aware of how they will play out in the "future" X-Men trilogy. There's the prequel/origin story curse again: we know what's going to happen, so it's difficult to surprise. It's tough to become immersed in a narrative when there's a checklist in the back of the mind of things that have to happen. Xavier losing the use of his legs... Check. Erik and Xavier going their separate ways... Check. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) aligning with Erik... Check. Erik donning Shaw's fetching helmet... Check. And so on... This impediment is not unique to X-Men: First Class. It's a universal prequel problem, and one of the reasons why superior prequels are hard to find.

With one notable exception, the characters are either boring or woefully underdeveloped. It's hard to assign blame to the miscast James McAvoy, who is a good actor, but his Xavier is uninteresting and will have viewers yearning for Patrick Stewart. It's difficult to develop a rooting interest in someone this dull. None of Xavier's students merit much interest, in large part because of the limitations of the already hefty (130 minutes) running time. Attempts are made at character building for Mystique, but they're perfunctory and not entirely successful. Everyone else, such as Havoc, Beast, Emma Frost, Darwin, Angel, is defined by their abilities rather than their personalities.

The exception is Erik/Magneto, whose presence is so forceful that he reduces Xavier to an afterthought. Michael Fassbender is magnetic; he captivates much as he did in Fish Tank and Jane Eyre, but with more force due to the epic scope. The underdeveloped father/son, mentor/pupil, creator/monster relationship between Erik and Kevin Bacon's Shaw represents the movie's most compelling dynamic; sadly, much of this is left unexplored as the movie stumbles around advancing Xavier's unremarkable backstory. Originally, this was planned to be Magneto's origin movie (along the lines of Wolverine). In retrospect, that might have been a better way to go. Fassbender's Erik could easily dominate a two-hour movie.

When the dust settles on 2011's crop of superhero movies, it seems likely that X-Men: First Class will end up somewhere in the middle, floating in a moat of mediocrity. A year from now, will anyone remember it? While X-Men fans will understandably line up to see this on opening weekend (and most will probably be pleased with the result), there's nothing about this prequel that demands a trip to the theater for those outside the die-hard circle. It's a perfectly serviceable superhero movie that hits the expected notes, but that's all it is. And it offers too little that's new, exciting, or interesting to earn more than a "wait for home video" recommendation from me.

X-Men: First Class (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2011-06-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1