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X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

The year is 1962 and Dr. Charles Xavier creates a school in Westchester County, New York -- a 'School for Gifted and Talented Youngsters'. In reality, Dr. Xavier has assembled a group of children who represent the next step in human evolution: mutants with superhuman abilities.

Will he train them in time to prevent a former Nazi concentration camp doctor from starting a nuclear armageddon? The X-Men movie franchise gets a Batmen Begins-style reboot prequel and it is very groovy.

Can you dig it, turkey?

As this is an origin film, audiences see the formative years of the two leads. A young Eric Lensherr is ripped from his parents' grasp in a concentration camp and in his agony his mutant ability to control magentism manifests. The iron gate separating him from his parents warps and twists as he screams. A Nazi guard knocks the boy out, and he is presented to a Mengele-like Dr. Schmidt (a well-cast Kevin Bacon) who offers Eric a chocolate bar -- but only if he can move a small coin using his mind. Unable to move the coin, the doctor calmly (clinically) removes the candy bar from the table and resorts to more horrifying methods. Eric, enraged, moves the coin (and a whole lot more) and is horrorstruck -- while the doctor exclaims 'wunderbar!'

Audiences then see a young Charles Xavier in his family's wealthy home, investigating a noise late at night. He finds his mother in the kitchen. When he asks what she's doing up so late, she turns to Charles and lovingly asks him if he wants some hot chocolate. The telepathic Charles replies, "What have you done with my real mother?" They laugh, and Charles becomes more serious. "Really now, who are you? My mother's never set foot in a kitchen of any kind, and she would ask a servant to make me hot chocolate." The woman isn't his mother, but a shapeshifting blue-skinned girl. He invites her to stay and eat as much as she likes ("It's not stealing if you're hungry."). He names her 'Raven' and adopts her as his sister.

Many years later, CIA agent Moira McTaggart follows a U.S. Army Colonel into the shadowy 'Hellfire Club' in Las Vegas. Women are paraded into the club wearing only lingerie, and Moira (Rose Byrne, from Inception) quickly undresses herself. Her sidekick says, "What are you doing?" And she replies, "Using non-CIA equipment to get inside." Again, this is groovy. She walks in as just another call-girl and follows the Colonel. She eavesdrops on his conversation with a jumpsuited supervixen, Emma Frost (January Jones) and a man named Sebastian Shaw, a rejuvenated, youthful Dr. Schmidt. They inform the Colonel that he will be supporting the placement of nuclear missile silos in Turkey. The Colonel laughs, saying it would be too provocative to the Soviets, that he will never support it. Shaw insists, of course, and the Colonel reconsiders. A mephitic-looking mutant teleports the Colonel hundred of miles away to Washington, D.C. -- just in time for the Colonel to throw his full support for the new missile emplacements in Turkey.

Moira escapes the Hellfire Club and reports that the Colonel is compromised, but her immediate superior laughs her off -- how could the Colonel be in Vegas anyway, hundreds of miles away? Moira decides she needs help from an expert on human mutation. She tracks down a twentysomething Dr. Xavier, just as he's using a line about genetics on a hottie at the bar. He reads Moira's mind, and agrees to help her.

Moira introduces Charles to 'Division X' -- a CIA department specializing in mutants. With Xavier's help they find the mysterious Sebastian Shaw on his luxury yacht. Shaw is in fact the evil Dr. Schmidt, a mutant who can absord any kind of energy and redirect it in various ways, including reversing the aging process. Their attempt to apprehend him is hindered by Eric (now full-grown), who has also tracked down Shaw, who experimented upon him at the concentration camp years previous. Eric's mutant ability to manipulate magnetic fields is not powerful enough to stop the bottom of Shaw's boat from converting into a submarine (groovy, baby, yeah!) and escaping.

Eric and Charles team up to find and stop Shaw, but first they track down more of their fellow mutants using Division X's supercomputer, and forming a new group called 'The X-Men'. Fans of the franchise will enjoy seeing these very old school characters, like Banshee, Beast, Havok and Mystique. The training montage (particularly Banshee's, who must use his supersonic screaming ability to learn to fly) is hysterical.

What stands out most about First Class is the lack of action. There is some action of course, and spectacular effects, but mostly the film feels like an espionage film populated by superpowered spies. If you took away the mutant angle, this film could probably play as a decent spy thriller. There's intrigue, drama and lots of character development, especially detailing the growing rift and ultimate separation of Eric and Charles; their two divergant perspectives on the role of mutants in human society driving them apart.

There's a kitschy, fun feeling to the film. When Shaw is safely tucked away on his supersecret submersible, he details his plan to his sidekick Emma Frost, a powerful mutant with telepathic abilities who can turn her body into a diamond-like substance. She looks like a 'FemBot' from the first Austin Powers movie. I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out that she can really fill out a silver, Buck Rogers-style jumpsuit with a frontside zipper. Shaw tells her to 'convince' a Russian general to support the setup of nuclear weapons in Cuba, and models a new helmet from the Soviets that shields his mind from telepathic scanning. In yet another Austin Powers moment, Shaw dons the very goofy-looking helmet and ogles her, asking "What am I thinking right now?" She can't read his thoughts -- so he tells her to get more ice for his glass of scotch. To top the hipness off, Emma gets him his ice, from an iceberg above the submarine.

First Class satisfies on a lot of different levels. Fans of the comic books (sorry, graphic novels) will be agog over a Dr. Xavier with a full head of hair, and hitting on chicks with a smooth line about genetics. History buffs (like this reviewer) will enjoy the alternate secret history that the script weaves, where the actions of mutants (both good and evil) affect great moments in history. The Cold War between America and the Soviet Union acts as a backdrop, lending the film a weird credibility. Older fans of the series will recognize this period of time as one in which nuclear war really did seem possible, even inevitable, at times.

So, yes, this is a comic book movie that will get people talking about history!

The acting is great all around. Michael Fassbender as Eric Lensherr, who will become the villain known as Magneto, takes the role in a slightly different direction from Ian McKellan. Fassbender's Magneto is more passionate; less set in his ways. James McAvoy's portrayal of Dr. X had just the right amount of charm mixed with kindness. The weakest moments come from the somewhat clanky character development itself, which is no fault of the actors. How Eric (Magneto) can become the heir to the monster who destroyed his family and not note the irony is a weakness that no amount of great acting can overcome.

Even Kevin Bacon, who isn't especially known for villainous roles, performs admirably  -- despite his character being the least fleshed out. He's cold, calculating, and very, very hip. Really, Bacon has just the right amount of willowy-ness required for a 60-era's villain.

The art direction is also top notch, making the late 60's setting come to life without feeling like a mockery. Unwinding at over just over two hours, First Class moves along at a brisk, intelligent pace. The story seems geared more to people who have never seen the previous X-Men films, introducing all the characters as ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary events of that time.

It ain't Shakespeare, but First Class is the best X-Men movie yet and one of the better comic book prequels out there.

Movie Rating: 
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