Sunday, June 03, 2012

X-Men: First Class (2011) ***½

I really want superhero movies to be good. I don’t know why, but the geek in me gets off on these stories about battles between superpowers. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t worth watching, which is why I am always so happy when a new X-men movie comes out. They always manage not to suck.

 The most recent installment, “X-Men: First Class” is no exception. This one is a prequel, telling the origin stories of Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and some other mutants. It turns out that Xavier (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) grew up together as childhood friends. As they grow into young adults, Xavier becomes a professor of genetics, while Mystique becomes increasingly bummed out over having to hide her natural, blue-skinned form from the world, using her shape-shifting abilities to make her look just like Jennifer Lawrence. Most girls would love to be able to look like Jennifer Lawrence, but Mystique understandably wishes that somebody, perhaps Charles Xavier, would find her beautiful as she really is. Anyway, the two get recruited by the CIA to combat the cold-war shenanigans of Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who turns out not only to be the Nazi doctor who experimented on the boy who would become Magneto, but also to be a mutant himself. Xavier uses his telepathic abilities to find other mutants, and they form a team, along with Magneto, to battle Shaw and his mutant posse. Great fun ensues.

 “X-Men: First Class” is chock-full of quality actors, including Michael Fassbender as the adult Magneto, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, and January Jones in her underwear. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly good, as her character Mystique explores the schism between mutants who look outwardly normal and those who have obvious physical differences. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon steal the show from the younger actors, however, lending a gleeful darkness to their characters. They don’t quite have the gravitas of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, but then again, who does?

 Besides consistently being a lot of fun, the X-men movies are, in my opinion, superior to the other current superhero movie franchises. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and it may come down to the central themes of these series. The Spiderman movies are based on the premise that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker is constantly learning the lesson that he can’t have any personal hopes and dreams, because the world needs him out there slinging webs and kicking villain ass. Batman’s underlying theme is that this man with a dark past has to draw on his rage to help drive him, but he has to constantly be on guard against letting it overcome him, lest he go on a murderous rampage. Both of these franchises can be fun at times, but neither series of movies has bothered to develop these themes or the main characters enough to make me care that much. The X-men movies, on the other hand, take the time to develop their characters and their motivations. Particularly resonant is their central theme about mutants being feared and hated by regular humans, and the various responses these mutants have to this, ranging from self-loathing, to a desire for reconciliation, to a desire to dominate humans. The mutants are often seen as a metaphor for gays in our society, but they could represent any minority group, and the series tells their stories ably enough to make the whole thing work. “X-Men: First Class” continues the tradition, and I’m looking forward to sequels featuring this group of actors.

 3.5 stars out of 5

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