Some film series seem destined to go on forever, and that may the case with the “X-Men” saga, which began in 2000 with a film appropriately titled “X-Men.” Because of its popularity, that movie spawned two sequels, “X2” in 2003 and “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006. Now when you make a movie with the word “last” in it, you might think that the series would end there. But there’s a way to keep the franchise going, and it’s called a prequel, which deals with characters and what they were doing before they appeared in the first movie.
The initial prequel, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” hit the big screen in 2009, and now in “X-Men: First Class,” we have the second prequel, which tells the story of how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), aka Magneto, became enemies in the school where young mutants are trained.
An incredibly talented cast makes this film extremely entertaining. It will grab you from the opening scene and not let go of you until the final frame. This one definitely is among the summer’s best films.
“X-Men First Class” begins during 1944 in Poland at a German prison camp, where the Nazi guards brutally separate Lensherr from his parents. Now it just so happens that Lensherr has the power to control magnetism so that he can move objects by using his mind (It’s also known as telekinesis), and he becomes so upset that he bends a metal gate before a guard finally knocks him out. Watching all of this from an upstairs window is a nasty fellow named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), and he summons Lensherr to his office. Then he puts a coin on his desk, brings Lensherr’s mother into the room, pulls a gun, and tells Lensherr that if he doesn’t move the coin with his brainpower by the count of three his mother will die. Lensherr fails to perform, and Shaw kills his mother in cold blood. This enrages Lensherr to the point that his power kicks in, and he destroys several rooms.
Now while this is going on, we switch to a mansion in New York, where Xaiver meets a mutant named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful shape-shifter who becomes his lifelong friend. This scene and the ones that precede it serve to show us both Xaiver and Lensherr in their younger days before we move to the present of 1962.
The rather complex plot involves Lensherr’s plan to exact revenge on Shaw, who killed his mother, and Xavier’s school for mutants at his spacious mansion. To add an element of reality to the story, the filmmakers have included actual footage of President Kennedy’s addressing the nation as the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, and we find out that one of the characters in the movie may have orchestrated the whole thing. In the film’s production notes, Bacon addressed this idea.
“Shaw’s plan is to escalate the Cuban missile crisis, to get Russian ships and submarines into the Bay of Pigs, and have the Americans and Russians fire at each other – triggering a nuclear war that will eradicate humanity and allow mutants to take over the world. It’s a fantastic plot device. It was an incredibly tense moment in world history, and to suggest that it was Shaw’s idea is a very cool way to set up the X-Men world during this era.”
Perhaps the most fun in the entire movie is watching the mutants exhibit their special powers. In addition to the telekinetic Lensherr and the telepathic Xavier, we have Darwin/Armondo Munoz (Ed Gathegi), who has the ability to grow gills if he is thrown into water or exercise night vision when he is in the dark. Banshee/Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones) can launch into flight with the help of sonic blasts, and Arazel (Jason Flemying) is a demon with the ability to teleport by opening portals in other dimensions. Then we have Riptide (Alejandro Gonzalez), who can stir up whirlwinds strong enough to destroy buildings, and Havoc/Alex Summers (Lucas Till) with the ability to send out energy waves so hot that can set anything on fire. There are a few more, but this gives you an idea of the variety of weapons these mutants possess.
In dealing with the science fiction genre, it is not unusual to find the emphasis on the special effects rather than the acting, but that’s not the case in this picture. Bacon is wonderfully evil as Shaw, and both McAvoy and Fassbender are excellent in their respective roles of Xavier and Lensherr. The lovely Lawrence is perfectly cast as the shape-shifting Raven, and January Jones seems to revel in her part as the voluptuous Emma Frost, the constant companion for Shaw and woman with her own special powers.
Avid fans of the series will notice a significant difference in the character of Xavier from the way he was in the trilogy, and in the film’s production notes McAvoy explained that this is by design.
“In those films Professor X is selfless and egoless. He is focused on humanity, on the rest of the world, and on helping others. When we meet him in this film, as a younger man, he’s self-centered, has an ego, and is a little bit lost. ‘X-Men: First Class’ is about Charles finding his purpose, and that was very much what attracted me to the role – to see who Charles was, and to explore the reasons why he became the person he did. Matthew (Director Matthew Vaughn) made it very clear at the beginning he wanted both me and Michael [Fassbender, as Erik] to play the characters, and not play Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen as younger men.
By far the most elegant mutant is Raven, portrayed beautifully by Academy Award nominee Lawrence, who offered the following analysis of her character in the production notes.
“Raven has learned to live with her secret, but much like most insecure teenagers who react to something they perceive makes them different, she hasn’t really faced up to her unique abilities. Raven is mostly ashamed of them. She slowly starts to realize it is a blessing and becomes proud of her mutant abilities, as do the other young mutants of their powers. At the beginning we are isolated and alone, and each mutant goes through a huge evolution. We join together to become this iconic X-Men team, and then separate. It is fascinating to see the journey each character takes and which side they ultimately join.”
Like “Super 8,” “X-Men: First Class” (Give it an eight.) is an outstanding summer film because it contains all the right elements to make it good escape entertainment. The acting is outstanding, the sets are interesting, and the special effects are superb. (One of the most spectacular segments in the in the movies is when ships launch a barrage of shells, and two of the mutants try to turn them back or let them find their targets.) The film also offers plenty of action punctuated with just the right amount of humor. And you can bet this won’t be the last film in the series.