Ever wonder who Professor X and Magneto were before they became Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan? You’ll find the answers in XMen: First Class
, directed by Matthew Vaughn. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender give us a fascinating look at the young mutants as they develop their powers and seek out others of their kind. Both actors give emotionally nuanced performances that keep the audience engaged and prevent this film from being just another “comic book” movie.
James McAvoy gives the young telepath Charles Xavier a certain goofiness, at first, as he completes his education, frequents the local pubs, and uses his telepathic ability to pick up girls. His privileged life has been shared with his informally “adopted” sister Raven, the blue-skinned chameleon shape-shifter who later re-names herself Mystique. He may be extremely bright, but he never seems to get the message that Raven’s feelings for him aren’t exactly sister-like. What happened to his telepathy in this case? Jennifer Lawrence gives an adequate performance as Raven/Mystique, but she is greatly overshadowed by McAvoy and Fassbender, as are most of the other actors in the film. Later, as the challenges grow more dangerous and drastic, Xavier becomes serious, dedicated, and unequivocally chooses the “good” side.
If McAvoy is good, Michael Fassbender is a revelation as Erik Lensherr/Magneto. His character is the more complex of the two, so he gets to show greater range. A nod must also be given to Bill Milner, the young actor who plays Erik Lensherr as a child in a Nazi concentration camp. His emotional agony effectively sets the stage for the adult Erik’s determined search for the villain who destroyed his family and tortured him. Erik’s transformation from Xavier’s best friend and co-instructor in his academy for young mutants into Magneto, Xavier’s arch-enemy in the “future” films, is completely believable in Fassbender’s competent hands. You need a powerful catalyst to blast a good guy over to the “bad” side, and Kevin Bacon gives an inspired portrayal of Sebastian Shaw, former Nazi camp commander, and ,later, seeker to provoke World War III to pave the way for the mutants’ take-over of the world – mutants who will answer to him. Bacon goes, in a matter of seconds, from merely annoying as he smacks his way through a chocolate bar in front of the young Erik, to psychotically evil as he terrorizes the boy to force him to use his ability to move and manipulate metal magnetically. He makes Shaw so deliciously malevolent that the audience aches for him to “get his”. Will he indeed get what he deserves? You’ll just have to see the film to get the answer to that question!
The story begins in 1944 when both Xavier and Lensherr are children -- Xavier in his magnificent estate, and Lensherr in a Nazi death camp. It soon jumps to 1962 – in the middle of the Cold War -- when Lensherr and Xavier find Shaw and learn that he, too, is a mutant. Shaw can absorb and re-direct energy in very dangerous and destructive ways. He has his own telepath, Emma Frost, blandly acted by January Jones, and plans to provoke the US and USSR into nuclear war over missiles in Turkey and, of course, Cuba. News footage from that time is effectively interwoven to good dramatic effect. Shaw also has recruited a couple of other mutants: Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) who can manipulate weather, and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) who looks like a devil and can move through time and space with alarming speed.
Accompanied by Raven/Mystique, Xavier uses his telepathy to locate and recruit other young mutants whom he and Lensherr can train. They find Hank – later to become Beast – who has hands for feet and can run at superhuman speeds. Hank is also a brilliant scientist for whom Raven develops a yen. They also find Angel (Zoe Kravitz) who has dragon-fly wings, therefore able to fly, and can shoot lethal, fiery spitballs at enemies. Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) can emit supersonic sound waves that shatter just about anything and also allow him to fly when directed toward the ground. Darwin (Edi Gathegi) can immediately adapt new features in order to survive. Havoc (Lucas Till) shoots lightning bolts of pure energy from his chest. Xavier, Lensherr, and the mutants are aided by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), who gamely bears sexist remarks and trivialization of her skills. She even has to strip down to her undies to infiltrate one of Shaw’s secret meetings. In fact, there is a great deal of lingerie in this film, which seemed gratuitous to me, but the gentlemen in the audience were not complaining!
Although the film is a bit long at 132 minutes, it clarifies much about the “sequels”, which I’m guessing most people attending this film will have seen. You’ll learn how and why Lensherr becomes Magneto as well as which mutants join him in opposing Xavier and all that is good. The film also reveals how Xavier winds up in a wheelchair. I don’t think the film would have suffered if about 20 minutes had been cut from it. Some scenes go on too long, and a few seemed extraneous. All the performers, with the exception of January Jones, are adequate, but McAvoy, Fassbender, and Bacon are amazing. You’ll have a good time.