Prequels are almost always a bad idea. Telling a story that has a pre-determined place where it must wind up seems to be a surefire way to stifle creativity. The awful, artistically bankrupt Wolverine prequel is an excellent example of this, and it almost killed the X-Men franchise. But the series has bounced back, and X-Men: First Class somehow manages to avoid the prequel pitfall.
It’s an ambitious,exciting film, and it’s probably my favorite of the series. The film opens in the same place as Bryan Singer’s first film, in 1944, with young Erik Lehnsherr, the future Magneto, in a concentration camp. After sinister camp scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) discovers Erik’s magnetic powers, he tries to draw them out, going so far as to kill Erik’s mother in front of him. In the United States, rich but lonely telepath Charles Xavier finds homeless and hungry shape shifter Raven, the future Mystique, rummaging around in his kitchen. He tells her that he accepts her for who she really is, scaly blue skin and all, and the two basically become adoptive siblings.
Later, in the film’s present day, it’s 1962, and adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) has become likea mutant James Bond. He has dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals and killing them, with Shaw as his chief quarry. In keeping with the time period, Shaw is basically a Bond villain. He has a kick-ass submarine, as well as some cool henchmen. These include the scantily-clad telepath Emma Frost (January Jones), who can turn herself into diamonds; the red-skinned, pointy-tailed Azazel (Jason Flemyng), who can teleport; and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), who can create tornados with his hands.
Shaw also has a truly crazy plan to incite nuclear war between Russia and the United States, kickstarting World War III. It turns out the Cuban Missile Crisis was Shaw’s fault. He believes that the atomic age has accelerated the rise of mutants, and, following this impeccable logic, has decided that a nuclear holocaust would wipe out the human race and strengthen the mutant race. Meanwhile, Charles (James McAvoy) is a fledgling professor of genetics at Oxford University, and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is there too, waiting tables. The two are contacted by CIA Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), who has been tracking Shaw and decided that she needs an expert on mutants in order to stop him. Charles and Erik’s paths collide as they both try to find Shaw, and they team up to find other mutants in order to face him. Their new team includes Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), aka Beast, a genius scientist who also has opposable thumbs on his feet. There is also a supersonic screamer named Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a chick with dragonfly wings named Angel (Zoe Kravitz), energy shooting Havok (Lucas Till) and ultra-adaptive Darwin (Edi Gathegi).
As with most blockbusters, the script was obviously written by committee, with Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, the film’s director, all credited with the screenplay, but the movie somehow managesto deliver credible and engrossing stories for about half a dozen characters while also treating its themes with a little complexity. The script does a great job of making neither side seem completely right or wrong. Except for all the pesky murder, the movie makes it easy to side with Erik, and doesn’t make those who do seem automatically evil. After all, Erik tells Raven that her natural form was beautiful, and shouldn’t be hidden, while Charles wants her to blend in with society.
The film’s excellent cast also helps a lot to sell the script. It’s very amusing to see Xavier as a young man, who likes to carouse and hit on girls in bars,and McAvoy is more charming here than I’ve ever seen him. Fass bender has been terrific in films such as Inglourious Basterds and Hunger, and here he is a raw nerve as he manages to find Erik’s tortured soul while also suggesting the humanity that is still in him. The two have excellent chemistry, and we can feel their friendship and mutual respect, and how much it breaks both their hearts when they part ways .Lawrence, fresh off her amazing, Oscar nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, invests Raven with a surprising amount of depth. She really sells the pain that Raven feels about living in a world that doesn’t accept her, and the way Charles, who helps so many others, lets down his oldest and closest friend is quite affecting. It automatically makes the previous films a lot sadder in retrospect. Shaw is a less complex character, of course, but Bacon is very entertaining in his villainy, and seems to be having a lot of fun. Hoult is also strong as he shows us Hank’s all-consuming desire to fit in.
Of course, the movie’s main goal is to be an exciting summer blockbuster, and it succeeds in that regard as well. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) obviously loves James Bond movies, and he gives this film the slick feel of the early Bond films without wallowing in period nostalgia. Vaughn also has a deft touch with the film’s many action sequences, which range from air and naval battles to laser beam fights. Perhaps most impressively,Vaughn takes a film that could feel overstuffed and overlong and keeps it moving at a rapid clip. Despite being very ambitious, full of characters and incident, the movie always feels focused and propulsive.Unlike most prequels, X-Men: First Classt ells a story that feels earned. We believe that the characters would make the decisions that they do,and it doesn’t just seem like the screenwriters are maneuvering them where they need to be at the end of the film. A tense and exciting blockbuster with more weight than expected, this is as smart and slick a superhero movie as we have seen in years.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com .