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"X-Men: First Class" flawed, but fun

June 10, 2011

The original "X-Men," directed by Bryan Singer, was the first movie I saw at Hollywood Premier Cinemas when it opened, if I remember correctly.
I was about 13 and madly in love with the sharp action scenes and the gravitas Patrick "Captain Picard" Stewart and Ian "Gandalf" McKellen brought to the roles of Professor X and Magneto, respectively. Better comic book adaptations have come and gone since then, including "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man," but I still consider Singer's first two "X-Men" films excellent.
Perhaps it's nostalgia that keeps me from agreeing with reviews of "X-Men: First Class" that call it the best movie in the franchise. But, I don't think so. I think it has more to do with how unbalanced the dramatic elements of "First Class" are.
It shares a director, Matthew Vaughn, with another of my favorite comic films, "Kick-Ass." I humbly nominate "Kick-Ass" as the most fun comic movie ever made, and that fun makes it into "First Class" unscathed. It's when the fun stops and Vaughn has to deal with the heavy themes and tragic back stories that Singer handled so well that the film is... not bad, exactly, just inconsistent. Cracks in the script and the acting start to show.
The film goes back to the early history of the X-Men mythos, to a time when Magneto and Professor X were simply known as Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). It's 1962, and a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) enlists Charles's aid when she discovers a group of mutants led by a Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) planning to incite nuclear war to serve their own ends.
Working with the CIA, Charles assembles the titular "first class," a team of young mutants that includes his shape-shifting childhood friend Raven, later known as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). In pursuit of Dr. Shaw, Charles meets and befriends Erik, a holocaust survivor who learned to control his magnetic powers through Dr. Shaw's cruel tutelage in Nazi-occupied Poland. Erik is determined to get revenge. Charles is equally determined to save Erik's soul.
As I said, "First Class" is at its best when we're having fun with Vaughn's take on familiar and unfamiliar characters. We get to see Professor X before his paralysis, a playboy fresh off a Ph.D. flirting with girls in bars. We share in the glee of heretofore unseen young X-Men who are only too glad to explain and display their powers, and we see the often hilarious, sometimes awesome transition period where they learn to use those powers responsibly and effectively. We see Magneto not as a beardless Gandalf but as a young, spry, ruthless, spectacularly efficient assassin.
Fassbender is no stranger to action, with roles in both "300" and "Inglourious Basterds," but he also shows some sharp acting chops. The bulk of this movie's dramatic merit hinges on Fassbender making the future "X-Men" villain a sympathetic character, and Fassbender succeeds. Bacon's Dr. Shaw is delightfully oily as well, and McAvoy is versatile - the charm I mentioned is just one of many intriguing new facets he adds to the character of Professor X, while keeping his trademarked strong will and empathy intact.
Not everyone or everything in "First Class" is as consistent, primarily because of the script. A lot of the supporting actors, especially the villains, don't get nearly enough opportunities to shine. Even some of the better performances, especially Lawrence's Mystique, get bogged down with some really ham-fisted lines like "Mutant and proud!"
It often feels like the actors are reading different pages from different drafts of the script, and no wonder: The script is listed on the Internet Movie Database as having six different authors. I get the feeling there was too much pressure at Fox to keep this franchise revival from failing, and executives kept throwing cooks at the project until they nearly spoiled the broth.
"Nearly" is the operative word here, though. "First Class" is a more than adequate revival for the "X-Men" franchise, and I would love to see that franchise in Vaughn's hands again with fewer other hands to get in the way. Fans of comics and comic movies won't be disappointed, even if it doesn't quite reach the upper echelon of the genre.

Nalley's Rating: 3 stars out of 4

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