X-Men: First Class–Directed by Matthew Vaughn

I never thought I would evaluate the “X-Men” franchise, or any other summer blockbuster, in terms of acting. Nonetheless, “X-Men: First Class,” the new chapter of the series that began a decade ago, boasts not one but several impressive performances.

Taking the “X-Men” story back to its roots, “First Class” makes a fresh start, resulting in a smooth, stylish, often thrilling and entertaining picture, which goes out of its way not to look or feel like a typical comic strip movie, or a mindless summer flick.

Driven by energy, “X-Men: First Class” is a dynamic entertaining fare that should appeal to young (and youngish) viewers all over the world, turning this segment into one of the most popular movies of Fox this year.

Each of the “X-Men” segments has been directed in a different style, reflecting the nature of the particular story and the idiosyncracies of the filmmaker behind the helm in terms of his strengths (and weaknesses).

 

Matthew Vaughn, the British helmer who had previously made “Kick Ass,” is a craftsman who possesses the technical skills to invigorate the “X-Men,” a series that had become too stale, detached, and predictable.

Vaughn has made some shrewd decisions other than casting the leads with “serious” and versatile actors, such as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who are not necessarily associated with popcorn actioners.

 

Origin stories, which are often meant to reboot a declining series (as was the case of “Batman”) are tricky to pull off, but “First Class” (which, for the record, is “X-Men 5”) succeeds.

 

The narrative, credited to Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn, takes the mutants’ adventures in new directions, which likely will satisfy the hardcore fans of the comic book and the earlier films and also may recruit new aficionados.

 

In the prologue, which occurs during WWII, we meet the young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner), who would become Magnet, as he gets involved with an evil Nazi, later known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, the future Professor Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) discovers that he is not the only mutant around.

 

The story per se takes place at the height of the Cold War, 18 years later.  James McAvoy plays Charles Francis Xavier, a bright young college graduate living in upstate New York who possesses the power to read and manipulate human minds.  CIA operative Dr. Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages”) hires him to help hunt down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (January Jones).

 

To accomplish his goal, Xavier recruits a bunch of wild mutants, all outsiders, motivated by various needs to demonstrate their self-worth and prove the usefulness of their skills.  The group includes shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), athletic scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and best of all Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a concentration camp survivor who can control metals.

 

As most of the plot takes place circa 1962, the narrative exploits the zeitgeist of the Cold War, specifically the events and culture of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Some viewers may not like the film’s strategy to combine comic superheroes with factual events, but rest assured that history onlys loom in the background.

 

Xavier commands his charges to use their unique and secret powers to fight evil, and one of the ironies is that their struggles (and sacrifices) are to protect a human race that (mis)treats them as inferiors due to their outsider status; they don’t belong anywhere.

 

“First Class” emphasizes the outsider status of the mutants and I will not be surprised if politically oriented viewers would draw parallels betwen them as a group with the civil rights movement an other liberation movements of the 1960s.

 

Episodic to a fault, the text is uneven, and some of the subplots are silly and less engaging than one would have liked them to be.  Moreover, the conflict between Professor Xavier and Magneto is simplistic ad inevitable.

 

Far more interesting, however, is the friendship that evolves between Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, despite the fact that they represent different philosophies.  Xavier dreams of a more democratic and open world in which mutants will be accepted as equals, whereas Lehnsherr sees mutants as the next stage in the progressive evolutionary process.

In its good moments, “First Class” evokes the tone and the spirit of the original comic books, as well as those of early James Bond pictures starring Sean Connery, such as “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love.”   I mean this as a compliment and do not want to suggest that “First Class’ is in any way old-fashioned and nostalgic; au contraire, it’s quite cool.

 

Though the acting of the leads is uniformly high, Michael Fassbender deserves special mention as the older Erik, a cold-blooded, globe-trotting killer motivated by revenge. Smooth, handsome, charismatic, and vicious, Fassbender commands the screen with authority and style.

 

Vaughn tries and to a large extent succeeds in balancing plot and character, humor and emotion, but he is less effective in giving his saga a solid substance.  Moreover, the five mutant teenagers enlisted by Xavier are appealing but lack definition as distinct personalities, or much action to engage in.   I suspect this aspect is saved by the filmmakers for the next installment.

 

It may be a matter of expectations. I had disliked the last two “X-Men” movies and thus had few hopes for the new picture, which had gone through a turbulent production process.  However, judging by what’s on screen, “First Class” is a surprisingly pleasing stand-alone action-adventure as well as a promising set-up for future viable chapters.