(above: Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jason Flemyng).
By Richard von Busack
A mutant of a movie, overloaded with plot and Easter eggs, X-Men: First Class tries to resolve too many conflicts with too-many underwritten side characters. There are too many actors in the way of what could have been the usual sturdy sci-fi brotherhood versus separatism drama…with, naturally, fights scenes, crashes, flashbacks and explosions.
This new installment is, anyway, a nice bounce back from the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And X-Men: First Class has an essentially thrilling idea. It tells the alternate history of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Here World War III was prevented by the cadets of Professor Xavier’s school for mutants. James McAvoy is the man who will later be Professor Xavier, a fresh graduate from Oxford, and the world’s most powerful psychic. Similarly young is Michael Fassbinder as Erik, later to be feared as the master of magnetism Magneto. The conflict of two worthy adversaries is roughly the Martin Luther King/pre-Mecca Malcolm X dispute. One dependably good human caught in between them is CIA liaison Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne).
X-Men: First Class is, in parts, an homage to those lyrical cinematic dreams that handled the noonday terror of the mushroom cloud: the James Bond movies. I didn’t see Layer Cake, but I will pass on the received idea that the way Matthew Vaughn made Daniel Craig look was essential to landing him the role of 007.
On the strength of this movie, Fassbender could play that part too.
Bryan Singer’s tremendous, even agonizing, opening scenes of the first X-Men (2000) showed us why Erik never trusted the human race. Vaughn restages these scenes, even if they come out in a new way: we were pretty sure we saw his mother go up the smokestacks of a concentration camp.
This opening act gave us sympathy for the villain. It reinforced the archvillains’ idea that unmutated Homo Sapiens is not to be trusted. So, threatened by a Nazi scientist, Erik is trained to use his magnetic power.
Simultaneously, Charles Xavier was being raised under wealthy circumstances in suburban New York. There, he meets the blue-skinned young mutant shape-shifter Raven (later, she grows to be Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone; later still, we know she will be the diabolical Mystique).
Charles and Raven meet in a way that could have used a nice long rewrite. She apparently wanders into his kitchen in the middle of the night for no good reason. It’s a meeting of stark coincidence. How many other mutants are there in the neighborhood?
In later years at Oxford, Charles and Raven are still together, posing as sister and brother. Raven is far more passionate about Charles, who has grown into the form of James McAvoy.
James McAvoy as Prof. Charles Xavier. Please aspirate the X in his last name.
Yet it’s hard to imagine McAvoy growing up into Patrick Stewart. He has no trace of the sardonic actor Stewart was: so inhumanly ballsy even in his mid thirties in TV’s I, Claudius.
McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is a therapist as much as a biologist, particularly in later scenes of dealing with Erik’s rage. He is all knowing, and there isn’t a skull he can’t penetrate. McAvoy does show us the friskiness of a cocksure scientist, as when he sweetens up a girl at a pub, or freezes a man at a drinking fountain.
But in X-Men: First Class, Xavier needs to stand up for the human race. It would have helped if he knew some pain himself: pain he didn’t know second hand from picking other people’s brains.
Our introduction to Charles has him as a child, encountering his mother in the dead of night in the kitchen of their mansion. It seemed like the beginning of an interesting scene. It’s 3AM. She’s still dressed up for the evening. Let’s imagine her psychic little boy knows his mother is lying about where she’s been. Isn’t it possible Charles could have read the wrong mind at some point in his childhood, and revealed something unforgivable, to himself and others?
So, as in the 2000 X-Men, it’s Magneto who captures us from the beginning. Fassbender, with his firm, square, slightly scarred mouth, is very suave, very cruel and intimidating in black turtleneck or scuba suit. In 1962, he’s on the trail of his Nazi tormenter, whom he tracks from Geneva to Argentina.
In time, Erik finds him. Considering his pursuer, it’s suitable that “Sebastian Shaw” (Kevin Bacon) has become a filthy-rich Bond villain, complete with a private nuclear submarine bearing a serious collection of post-Impressionist art. He’s also picked up a literally Satanic henchman (Jason Flemyng, as Azazel, essentially a red, evil version of Nightcrawler). Shaw’s arm-candy is a scantily clad psychic moll, Emma Frost (January Jones) who can turn herself into a living diamond.
(above: atomic core room, as admired by villains January Jones and Kevin Bacon.)
This is, as it sounds, very much fun.
The villain is being watched by the CIA, who are investigating a mysterious “Hellfire Club” operating out of a Vegas casino. Stripping to her lingerie, agent Moira runs out and infiltrates the showgirls who are hired to entertain a private gathering of the military-industrial-supervillain complex. From different ends, Erik and Charles meet at the villains yacht and begin their friendship.
Moira starts to learn the truth about the “children of the atom”; some of these children must have been born before atomic testing, but what of that.
The existence of mutants is an inconvenient truth the government first scoffs at…except for one enterprising chief (a well-cast Oliver Platt) who decides to take them up as a project.
Tragically, after Shaw escapes, the movie shifts gears and gets Hogwartian. Using the super-powered computer Cerebro, the teamed up Erik and Charles seek mutants around the world to come stay at the CIA compound.
As the new mutants sit around over Cokes and Oreos, having a power-sharing demonstration, the film goes dead on the screen. Juicing the later training montage with ‘60s split screen doesn’t make it more lively; compare it with the economical way Singer demonstrated the gifts in the first X-Men movie.
Even trained and uniformed, the “first class” of Xavier’s school look like the b-team: somehow least impressive is the mutant Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) who can shout loudly enough to fly. And, for added skin, a very anachronistic strip club waitress (Zoe Kravits) who can sprout dragonfly wings and hock up wads of fire. In action scenes, they’re both closer to something you’d see in another 1960s chimera: Ultra-Man.
I’m an ex-reader of the X-Men, who dropped out when they started packing the bench with mutants. (I feel this was a conspiracy that had something to do with Star Wars and the toys they generated). Our favorite of the old mutants doesn’t join up—there’s a heartfelt, obscene three-word cameo by him, and you don’t know how to take it. A joke? A comment on how bad his last X-Men film was?
Rising above the rest of the pack is one of the original four X-Men from the ‘60s comic books, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, who is first-class), a brilliant scientific reject who starts to romance Raven. Ultimately, he can’t accept the way she really looks, and Hank is closeted about his own mutantcy. There’s one good line when the government learns the truth about him. The line ties this installment to the series’ sharp metaphor about the rights for gay people. What is the X-Men series but the greatest set of “It Gets Better” videos ever made?
When the battle royal starts at the end, director Matthew Vaughn has to line up these subsidiary players like a boy playing with action figures. (There’s even a blue Wookie pilot among them, speaking of Star Wars. To reverse Greta Garbo’s line about the finish of the Cocteau masterpiece, give me back my geek.)
(above: Nicholas Hoult, who is going places.)
The chorus line of superheroes obscures the clean simplicity of the Bond movie plotting. The animation depicting how this war will come to pass (like an old 1960s Time magazine graph come to life) is visually exciting and chilling, but the staging of the battleships converging on the fateful line near Cuba seems hurried. There’s no intensity to the way the Russian and American sailors are eyeball to eyeball, no little detail that makes us feel the terror of men on the brink. (John Barry used to let the music do the talking in these apocalyptic scenes, admittedly).
Like all movies about the 1960s made past 1995, it assumes every historical event in that decade happened at the same time: miniskirts occurring during the Cuban Missile Crisis…internecine civil rights struggle at the same time as the peak of the spy movie craze.
The European art house films those Bond films consumed like popcorn are here, though. The untutored film critic sees bad acting in January Jones, when they should see the belle (du jour) indifference of Denueve. Bunuel himself might have enjoyed the phantasmagorical kinkiness of the moment where a big brass bed comes alive and throttles this diamond girl. (I preferred her own girl-on-top moment: Emma’s cold mind-fucking of a Russian general, played by the reliable Rade Serbedzija.)
Matthew Vaughn’s powerful if sometimes unappealing strength is to use cartoon violence and take it too far. In excruciating little doses, it’s a stimulant: one of Erik’s finest Bond moments is a rough-justice variation on the “Is it safe?” scene from Marathon Man. Watching it, you know how some of the 1960s audiences felt when they use to complain that the Bond films were too brutal.
And there’s excitement in the early scenes when Erik unleashes his uncontrollable power: smashing up a room like a whirlwind, animating barbed wire to roil up and snake Russian guards.
We just don’t ever see anything in Charles that matches that power: no steel, just the milk of human kindness. Even when the fight scene breaks out, Charles, this demigod among men, is as damp as a sponge mop. Was there never a time when he was a hothead about anything?
(one wave of Fassbender's hand, and your hard drive goes blank.)
Lack of dramatic groundwork leads to the uninspiring finale. This movie is always nervous about the nom de guerres these X-Men have; it’s even nervous about the word “X-Men.” When these moments come around, it’s probably best to remember Alan Moore’s custom of having Batman address Superman as “Clark”. So there’s code-names? What of it?
The movie finishes with its most underwhelming scene: a moment of incarnation, of caped and cowled menace made as prissy as Christopher Mintz-Plass’s fanboy threat at the end of Kick-Ass. We had gotten a load of you, Magneto, and you were scarier without the helmet.