Top critical review
Mutants and proud
on January 11, 2015
No Nightcrawler. No Storm. No Cyclops. No Rogue. No Gambit. And there's a noticeable lack of dignified old men like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
Yes, this is not the X-Men you're used to. "X-Men: First Class" goes back to the 1960s to tell the origin stories of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, as well as their charismatic leaders Professor X and Magneto. The story itself is a puff piece used to introduce the characters, but the performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are absolutely spellbinding.
In the 1960s, a CIA sting operation discovers that the the cruel Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon) (who is working with the Russians) also has a small group of superpowered mutants who can teleport, read minds, and so on. And the existence of mutants is proven to the government by mind-reading telepath Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and his foster sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).
With Shaw planning to spark off a nuclear war between Russia and the US, Xavier begins gathering his own group of mutants -- including Erik Lensherr, a Holocaust survivor who is hell-bent on killing Shaw. The mutants begin training themselves so they can use their abilities to the fullest, but they may not be a match for Shaw... and even worse, Erik might be.
"X-Men: First Class" as a pretty fluffy main plot, since its main purpose is to bring Erik and Charles together as best buddies... only to have them splinter off in two very different directions. Yes, there's a lot of stuff about the Cuban missile crisis and impending nuclear doom, but it feels like it's just a backdrop for the REAL drama.
But it is a pretty fun popcorn movie, though not as powerful as the first two X-Men movies. There are some very striking moments (the FLYING SUBMARINE! Epic!), and some pretty impressive action scenes. However, director Matthew Vaughn really underplays some important scenes (such as Beast's transformation), and he really beats you over the head with the gay parallels of the mutants ("You didn't ask").
As for the cast, the villains are pretty lackluster. Bacon gives a good performance, but he feels strangely out of place, as if he doesn't quite click into the story. And January Jones -- aka "sparkly Christmas ornament with breasts" -- gives a performance like garden tools scraping through a chalkboard. She is so annoying that she actually infects any scene she's in. And sadly, there is an ugly undercurrent of misogyny running through the story, with all the women explicitly sexualized (there isn't one who doesn't get naked or seminaked).
But on the flipside, the protagonists are AMAZING. McAvoy and Fassbender are absolutely brilliant as two very similar men -- charismatic, intelligent, strong-willed -- who become fast friends, but are divided by their different views of human nature. Both actors really explore the bond between their characters, but you can see their differing beliefs slowly infecting it.
As for the younger X-Men, they range from excellent (the adorable Nicholas Hoult) to horribly flat (Zoë Kravitz), but the one that disappointed me the most was Lawrence as the young Mystique. Lawrence is a sublime actress, but she seems oddly "off" here... possibly because of Mystique's rather flat "teen outcast" characterization.
"X-Men: First Class" has a rather lightweight plot and some sketchy casting, but is saved by the presence of McAvoy and Fassbender. A fun watch for fans of the X-Men, if you can get past the constant objectification of women.