Review: X-Men: First Class

The summer’s big mutant movie passes the test.

By Matthew Halverson June 3, 2011

“No, you did not sink my battleship”: McAvoy and Fassbender face off.

X-Men: First Class is all about adaptation.

You’ve got mature mutants—like telepath Charles Xavier and metal-manipulator Erik Lehnsherr—who see themselves as the next step in human evolution. You’ve got their younger counterparts—like shape-shifter Raven Darkholme and ape-footed Hank McCoy—who struggle to fit into society’s idea of what’s normal. And then there’s the movie itself, which manages to rise out of the primordial ooze that has mired so many lackluster comic book flicks in the last decade to become a breed apart.

Although First Class is the fourth film in the X-Men franchise, director Matthew Vaughan (Kick-Ass) flashes back 50 years from the present, to when the band of genetic outcasts found purpose for their superhuman abilities and solace in each other’s freakish company. But unlike the average origin story that focuses exclusively on its characters’ quest to understand themselves, Vaughan’s uses historical events to ground that potentially hokey hero’s journey in the real world: The still-maturing mutants are caught in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis and tasked with saving humanity from itself.

Now, in this alternate reality the nuclear standoff has been orchestrated by the evil mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), but the sharp script (written by Vaughan and three others) never strays into moustache-twisting villainy. In fact, as comic book movies go, First Class is light on action in the first two acts, focusing more on the developing bond between Xavier (James McAvoy) and Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).

The fact that they’ll one day be enemies makes their friendship all the more bittersweet, but it’s McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s ability to bring to the roles quiet gravitas and controlled rage, respectively, that makes the whole thing so fun to watch. (On the other hand, January Jones, whose character can take diamond form, has all the spunk of a lump of coal.) They may be superhuman, but they’re just as damaged as the average Joe.

X-Men: First Class opens in theaters today.

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