by Tony Dayoub
Given the decline of the X-Men movie franchise—which peaked fairly early with Bryan Singer's X2: X-Men United (not just one of the best in this series, but one of the best superhero films, period) before ending up in the execrable X-Men: The Last Stand and the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine—one would be justified in choosing to avoid the latest entry sight unseen. But the anomalous X-Men: First Class turns out to be one of the most surprising summer blockbuster hopefuls in quite a long time. The cheesy comic-book costumes glimpsed in the preview hinted that this may have initially been planned as a slapdash film hastened to the box office for fear that studio distributor 20th Century Fox's rights to the series would revert back to Marvel. However, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) turns the inherent camp quotient into a virtue, giving us a stylized, period look at the secret history of the mutant group and its origins, at times channeling the espionage-laden eccentricities of the early 007 films.
Playing Bond in this one is Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre) as Magneto, né Erik Lehnsherr, a holocaust survivor who uses his mutant abilities of lethal control over metals to further his globetrotting Nazi-hunting mission. As he gets closer to his nemesis, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon)—Schmidt, in his days as a sadistic Nazi doctor—Erik meets Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a powerful telepath recruited by the U.S. government to gather a mutant team dedicated to stopping Shaw from inciting humanity's armageddon.
Some of the best moments in X-Men: First Class come in the early part of the film, as Vaughn uses the period, early 1960s setting to supercharge the otherwise conventional movie. Erik's turtlenecks, narrow trousers and short boots, his cutting sense of humor, and confident swagger evoke the Sean Connery of Goldfinger (1964) or From Russia with Love (1963). The wild, sexually provocative costumes which barely cover Shaw's sidekick, the glittery telepath Emma Frost (January Jones), are easily explained by the front Shaw uses—a Las Vegas swingers' hot-spot known as the Hellfire Club—as a cover for influencing the global power-brokers on his payroll. Frequent appearances by JFK remind us that this was a time both filled with promise for the future and dread for the nuclear Sword of Damocles which hung over both the U.S. and the Soviet Union and, as a result, the rest of the world.
Now, lest you think my enjoyment of X-Men: First Class was without reservations, here they are: The allegorical aspects of the franchise that equate the shame of mutation with closeted homosexuality float on the surface of the film. Any of the subtlety used to camouflage the topicality of the first two films is absent here. Also, the actresses in the film (perhaps the only exception being the capable Rose Byrne) are in over their heads. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) displays none of the talent that garnered her an Oscar nomination last year, reading her dialogue flatly. Zoë Kravitz seems to have been cast mainly to capitalize on the intrinsic promotional angles associated with being Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet's daughter. As for January Jones, is she a bad actress or what? Cast in the largest of the female roles, one wonders not only how she got away with projecting such a dull persona as a character that should stand out simply for the way she vamps it up as the film's designated eye candy, but if Jones ever really merited any of the attention she received as Betty Draper on the acclaimed TV series, Mad Men? Kevin Bacon fares marginally better as the movie's big baddie, but essentially his performance is yet another variation on the same smug asshole he's played since he made his debut in Animal House.
Flawed as it is, X-Men: First Class has two stellar things going for it—a couple of charismatic leads in McAvoy and Fassbender. Both share the kind of chemistry and easy camaraderie often seen in the best movie duos like Douglas and Lancaster, Lemmon and Matthau, and Newman and Redford. They bring equal parts gravitas and humor to their parts, leavening the juvenile dialogue beyond its obviousness. For Fassbender in particular, who has long toiled in the world of indies but is unknown to most of the general public, this should be a star-making performance. If the producers of X-Men: First Class wish to ensure their franchise's longevity, they should lock down Fassbender and McAvoy now, and start prodding their screenwriters to find something for the mutant team to fight in the Nixon Era.