With James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones; Directed by Matthew Vaughn; Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language). 132 minutes.
Those looking to see how X-MEN: FIRST CLASS fits into the Marvel universe will have to look elsewhere. This reviewer, raised on DC Comics, has no opinion as to how this compares to comic books he never read. Coming at this prequel with no preconceptions or expectations, reactions may differ from the true fans. However after the relative disappointments of “The Green Hornet” and “Thor,” it seems sufficient to note that this is the best comic book superhero movie since “The Dark Knight,” and may turn out to be one of the best of the summer blockbusters.
Even if you haven’t read the comics, it helps to have seen the “X-Men” movies. The first two were quite good, but the series seemed to be running out of steam with the fourth film, exploring the origins of Wolverine. So what they’ve done here is go back to before the first film and create a prequel, where we see how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) met, became friends, and eventually ended up on opposite sides. If only George Lucas could have seen this film ten years ago, the “Star Wars” prequels might not have ended so many fans’ childhoods so unceremoniously.
Even if we know where this is going – Dr. Xavier will eventually create a school and safe haven for mutants and Eric will become Magneto, the mutant leader who believes that humanity’s day in the sun has passed – the filmmakers have come up with a character-driven story to tell. Xavier is an expert on mutations who is recruited into a CIA effort to battle Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an ex-Nazi who conducted experiments on mutants and, in 1962, is ready to goad the United States and Russia into World War III.
Both Xavier and Shaw surround themselves with mutants with special powers, some of whom will be familiar to fans of the comics and/or movies, and others whom are new. Most notable is Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a shapeshifter who will later become Mystique. Her character is torn between wanting to be “normal” and the desire to be accepted for who and what she is, a theme that has played out in the best of the “X-Men” films. Xavier, who has become a surrogate older brother for her, believes mutants and humans can work together for a common good. Shaw believes mutants will supplant humanity in ruling the Earth. We know where Magneto is going to come out on this, and yet his transformation across the film is both startling and dramatically satisfying.
Unlike the other Marvel-based films, the “X-Men” movies seem to have a political underpinning. The mutants are the stand-ins for the oppressed group of the moment, wanting to be accepted and lead their own lives but stigmatized as the “other” and forced to make a decision. Should they try to persuade humanity to accept them or should they accept the fear and hatred as their due and act accordingly? This core issue makes the films seem to be about something, rather than just guys in fancy outfits having special effects battles as in the “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man” movies.
There’s a solid cast here with McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence strong as the three principal mutants, and a wide range of performers turning in solid work. Kevin Bacon’s villain is apparently nothing like his comic book character, but one suspects only the hardcore Marvel fans will object. (Bacon is absolutely chilling.) January Jones is sexy and scary as Emma Frost, one of Shaw’s team, and Oliver Platt provides welcome support as a CIA agent who believes that working with mutants is inevitable.
There are more superhero movies to come this year, and some will inevitably disappoint. However, “X-Men: First Class” is the first great film of the summer season, and one that sets the bar high for the movies to come.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.