After two good movies and two that might be best forgotten, here we are at the fifth entry in the 'X-Men' franchise, 'X-Men: First Class.' As the second of three Marvel movies coming out over the course of three months and with DC's 'Green Lantern' still on the way, the competition is fierce this summer. So, with the hype machine turned up to 11 and ticket sales ready to skyrocket, does 'First Class' stand cape-and-boot above the rest, or is it just one more example of fanboy kryptonite?
Hit the jump to find out.
What's It About?
'X-Men: First Class' is the story of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr before they became archrivals and started going by Professor X and Magneto. After discovering their respective mutant powers of telepathy and magnetism in a suburban mansion and a Polish concentration camp in the 1940s, the two eventually cross paths 20 years later while Erik is hunting down his mother's killer (a total jerk named Sebastian Shaw) and Charles is assisting the CIA with the same goal in mind. Despite their differences in temperament and ideology, the two become fast friends and start recruiting fellow mutants from around the globe in an effort to take out Shaw before he starts World War III and achieves global mutant supremacy by wiping out the humans.
Is Wolverine in It?
No, not really, but Logan already had his shot in the spotlight, and the best thing he got out of that was a surprisingly sweet video game tie-in.
We know, Wolverine's the man, but one of the best things about 'First Class' is how it ends up being so much fun and so thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end -- even without the franchise's most popular character on board. Because as cool as Wolverine is, the heart and the depth of this franchise has always been the relationship between Charles and Erik.
For starters, it's just really interesting to see where their story began and the roots behind their varying outlooks on how mutants fit into a society that rejects them. When we first met the two men on the big screen back in 2000, they were already at odds with each other, and mutants like Mystique had already chosen sides. But after being invested in their stories for 11 years now (movie-wise, at least), it's fascinating to see their evolution from friends to rivals and vice versa.
The story strongly maintains the civil rights theme that began in Bryan Singer's original 'X-Men,' with Charles more or less playing the Martin Luther King Jr. figure to Erik's Malcolm X. It's a damn good direction to take this in because while we didn't get much of it in 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine,' it worked like gangbusters in the first two movies and it's as much about the characters themselves as it is what they stand for. It's the story of two individuals who have been outcast from birth for being "different" -- only one wants to achieve equality through peaceful means and mutual understanding, while the other ultimately opts for superiority by any means necessary. That kind of substance and bridge to real-world issues has always been something that's separated this series from the popcorn fluff that Marvel has been known to throw our way from time to time.
On top of that, when you consider how many characters get thrown into the mix here, this should have been a recipe for disaster. With all the different subplots going on, all the different powers to account for, and the choice to weave this fictional story into non-fictional history, the writers did a seriously bang-up job of making everyone feel important and giving many of them more character development than even most solo-starring superheroes could ask for. Four writers working on the same script isn't always a good thing, but lucky for all of us, the script is really good and more than manages to strike that difficult balance between entertaining and substantial without falling too far toward either end.
It's surprisingly well-written, a complete blast through and through, and it doesn't hurt to have a good sense of humor either.
All Right, So the Script's Legit, But How About the Action?
This sucker definitely knows a thing or two about action. As previously mentioned, there tons of characters with tons of powers on display here, and it's very impressive how inventive the action got by putting them all to wildly original use. Some seriously epic scenarios that brought a whole lot of "wow" factor to the table and some mutant showdowns that continually went in unpredictable directions. When you're dealing with superpowers like these, the only way to avoid disappointment is to think outside the box.
And the cast is out of sight. Nothing against Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, but James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have 'em beat. McAvoy brings a whole new element of laid-back likability to Professor X; Fassbender does a killer job of making Magneto come off like the hardened badass that he is (even if the Irish accent doesn't quite go with the Polish background); and not only do they totally carry the movie, they bring their characters to new heights that will make you forget that clawed Canadian. Kevin Bacon is also perfect as that smug bastard Sebastian Shaw; Jennifer Lawrence ain't bad as a young Mystique; Nicholas Hoult is quite good as Beast (still can't believe that's the same kid from 'About a Boy'); and the other dozen or so mutant actors are all solid, too.
The only forgettable performance of the bunch is a lackluster January Jones as Emma Frost, but she does have the look down pat, and, well, that's always been a big part of why anyone cares about Emma Frost.
Is It Worth Seeing?
Hell to the yeah, it is. For a movie that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it goes by remarkably fast. The last summer blockbuster that was this much fun was probably 'Star Trek' in '09, and after being pretty underwhelmed by 'Thor' a few weeks back (we may be in the minority on that one), it's great to have at least one superhero movie to look back on and think, Man, that effing rocked. And as long as you can overlook all the X-Men canon that it rewrites, chances are you'll walk out thinking likewise.
Very happy to see director Matthew Vaughn get this series back on track with one of the best in the whole series. Eat your heart out, Brett Ratner.
8/10 Mutant Chronicles