Monday, June 06, 2011

First Class Entertainment

X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
20th Century Fox

(Mild spoilers below.)

The creative bankruptcy of Star Wars Episodes I-III has made many people reasonably leery of prequels. Fortunately, 2009's energetic and fun reboot of Star Trek helped redeem the concept; X-Men: First Class completes that rehabilitation. It's a smart, stylish, high-concept action thriller with something to say.

Set primarily during the events of the Cuban Missle Crisis, X-Men: First Class reintroduces us to younger, more swinging versions of characters we've come to know and love in Bryan Singer's original X-films: Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, Beast and others. Though engaging, these characters were somewhat staid in the first X-Men films, their attitudes set, their actions comfortably predictable. But here, the aftermath of the holocaust and fears of nuclear war, along with the freewheeling sexuality and social unrest that were the backdrop of the 1960s, each player reveals new depths; familiar motivations and character traits are just beginning to take shape.

The story is simple but well-crafted: holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) wants revenge against the man that killed his mother, while an idealistic young professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) wants to find others of his kind and help them integrate with the wider culture. In the background, a cabal of - not racist, but rather "species-ist" mutants led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon!) plot the downfall of humanity and their own ascension to the heights of power.

An engaging series of setpieces illustrates the growing friendship and ideological tension between Xavier and Lensherr, one man motivated by love and idealism, the other by rage and bitter cynicism. Along the way, they seek out other mutants, assembing an army of sorts to meet the threat of Shaw and his supporters. while all this is going on, each mutant character faces one central conflict: is it better to hide ones differences and therefore escape the prejudice and fear of the prevailing culture, or should one stand "mutant and proud" and celebrate his or her differences? Furthermore, how should the new species - Homo Superior - relate to Homo Sapiens? Is there room for both?

These questions lead the characters inexorably to the final showdown off the coast of Cuba, with Russian and American fleets facing off in the ultimate nuclear showdown - a perfect metaphor, of course, for mutants, the "children of the atom," their evolutionary change accelerated by the radiation of the nuclear age, a clever throwback to a concept that drove the plot of many 1950s and 60s B-movies.

Here the film lurches, quite like Quentin Tarantiono's Inglourious Basterds, into rather audacious alternate history. Both squads of mutants do battle before the stunned eyes of thousands of witnesses - the crews of the Soviet and American fleets. A freighter carrying Soviet nuclear warheads is destroyed. In other words, history is turned on its head, and the crisis plays out completely differently than it did in real life, flipping audience expectations upside-down. When the human fleet fearfully turns on all of the mutants, including those who saved the world from nuclear war, Xavier's idealism is wounded but unbowed, while Lensherr's rage and hate are, in his mind, utterly justified, setting the stage for the mutant schism seen in the later films.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with McAvoy and Fassbender particularly engaging and believable. The dialogue is snappy and the plot sensible (high praise in this day and age), supported by a thrilling score and excellent special effects from old master John Dykstra. And perhaps most importantly, it has a positive but far fromi naive message about the importance of diversity and acceptance. For a summer blockbuster, X-Men: First Class is ambitious and smart, and well worth a trip to the multiplex.

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