'X-Men: First Class' Review

10:01 PM PST 06/01/2011 by Todd McCarthy
Murray Close/20th Century Fox

This 1960s-inspired production re-energizes the franchise.

Much as Casino Royale rebooted the James Bond franchise in a fresh and dynamic way, X-Men: First Class injects new blood into a franchise that, for all its profitability, had become blandly anemic. In fact, the first half of this massive and very-well-cast origins extravaganza is arguably the best hour of Marvel Comics-derived filmmaking among the torrent of it in recent years. Audacious, confident and fueled by youthful energy, this is a surefire summer winner for a wide global audience.

The specter of Bond hovers over this British-flavored production in several ways, all beneficial: The 1962 setting shot through with Cold War tensions conjures the political moment at which 007 was born cinematically, the hardware and style harken to an earlier high-tech era that looks quaintly beguiling today, and Michael Fassbender as Erik -- the future Magneto -- cuts a dashingly ruthless figure that could only have been patterned on Sean Connery in the early Bonds. First Class comprises an enormous stew of elements and influences, but head chef Matthew Vaughn has stirred things so as to make them not only digestible but quite tasty.

Departing from the backstory of the comics, the new yarn, devised by Sheldon Turner and original X-Men director Bryan Singer and written by Thor co-scenarists Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz along with Jane Goldman and Vaughn, pivots on an alluringly fanciful proposition, that the real events of the Cuban Missile Crisis had a shadow history involving manipulations by figures whose superpowers put those of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to shame; it's as if JFK, Khrushchev, Castro and the CIA were mere puppets doing the bidding of unsuspected Olympian gods, the most spiteful of whom desire nothing less than human extermination.

Not inaptly, then, it all begins (as did Singer's 2000 X-Men) at Auschwitz, where young Erik, challenged to display his "magnetic" powers, sees his mother gunned down by the heinous camp doctor (Kevin Bacon). In the more benign setting of Westchester, N.Y., two kids, Charles and Raven, exhibit odd characteristics of their own. Like the most peripatetic of 1960s globe-hopping thrillers, the early stretch of First Class hardly stays put for more than a moment, jumping all over the world in the service of introducing an enormous number of characters. Under the circumstances, Vaughn maintains a strong focus dedicated to clarity and dramatic power; while Erik scours the world for stray Nazis, Charles (James McAvoy) achieves academic prominence and, along with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), is recruited by the CIA with the eventual aim of assembling a Division of Mutant Powers.

Although a lot of the early material is setup, it develops surprising momentum and tension. The malevolent doctor resurfaces as Sebastian Shaw, who has developed an extraordinary capacity to absorb, harness and deploy energy, while the doctor's fabulously sexy partner in crime, Emma Frost (January Jones), not only has telepathic ability but possesses an optional indestructible diamond veneer. When Erik tracks them down on board their yacht and seems on the verge of fulfilling his 18-year quest, his quarry escape in a manner befitting the best of the Bonds.

Once Erik decides to join forces with Charles under the auspices of an offbeat CIA honcho (Oliver Platt) and an adventurous agent (Rose Byrne), the film takes on a more standard-issue Marvel air as mutant youngsters are trained in hiding; they are Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Alex/Havok (Lucas Till), Sean/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and, for a while, Angel (Zoe Kravitz). The problem here is not only familiarity but also that, unlike the other characters, these kids seem resolutely 21st century, not early 1960s; one of them even says "whatever." Still, once Emma penetrates the Soviet military and the enormity of Shaw's scheme becomes clear, the film takes off again with a fantastical rendition of a naval confrontation off Cuba.

Vaughn orchestrates the mayhem with laudable coherence, a task made easier by a charging, churning score by Henry Jackman that, much as that of his mentor Hans Zimmer did in Inception, helps smooth the connections among rapidly changing locations and events. A few of the effects in the climactic section don't quite measure up, but the visual effects by veteran wizard John Dykstra are mostly terrific. Top-drawer contributions are also delivered by production designer Chris Seagers, costume designer Sammy Sheldon and cinematographer John Mathieson.

The cast is almost absurdly easy on the eyes and is most powerful at the top thanks to the intense Fassbender, who will now need no audition if Daniel Craig decides to give up Bond after another picture or two (though McAvoy is forced to spend a bit too much time with his hand to head, summoning telepathic signals). Bacon is formidable as the former Nazi, and Jones dazzlingly projects the arrogance of maximum beauty and invulnerability. As the naturally blue-skinned Raven/Mystique, Lawrence is at her most appealing when conveying an ashamed insecurity. A vulgar cameo by a certain hirsute character provides a hearty laugh.

Release date Friday, June 3 (Fox)
Cast James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon
Director Matthew Vaughn
Producers Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes

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