At the heart of X-Men: First Class is the push and pull between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, excellent as always), who can read minds and control the thoughts of others, and Erik Lehnsherr (the riveting Michael Fassbender, who will be a huge star after this), who can make metal do his bidding. In the first X-Men movie, we saw the endpoint of their relationship, after which they are bitter enemies on either side of a hard line, divided over how best to interact with the non-mutant population (Lehnsherr sees violent conflict as the only option; Xavier wants to work peacefully together). Here, we witness their first meeting and the beginning of what is almost instantly a powerful friendship and complementary working partnership, though they are in contention instantly as well.
A mutant baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, never more villainous or having so much fun with it), is attempting to manufacture a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to wipe out the “normal” humans and accelerate the mutagenic process and create more people like him and his friends. The year? 1962. Yup: This is the “real” story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that alone makes this a deliciously odd tale tinged with satire, placing First Class somewhere in an alternate realm just to the right of reality, at the intersection between Dr. Strangelove and an Oliver Stone conspiracy fantasy.
Where is the boundary between freedom and slavery? Does torture work, and should we be above it even if it does? These questions are explored through Xavier and Lehnsherr’s arguments with comic-book-scaled subtlety. One scene, in which the two men need to get information about Shaw out of Emma Frost (January Jones), is shocking from a number of angles. The brilliant thing about it all is that both of them are at least partially correct in their perspectives, and though we’ve seen their future selves before, so we know where they will end up, the film somehow manages to avoid the feeling of inevitability that comes with prequels and preordained endings.
And, boy, is this film swank. Director Matthew Vaughn has given us an X-Men movie that’s less like his superhero sendup Kick-Ass and more like his elegant crime drama Layer Cake. Not a lot more, but still. This is a groovy, cinematic, and iconic 1960s we get here, stylish and snazzy to look at but also effortlessly cool in attitude. With its sleek smoothness, this could almost be a lost early James Bond flick that’s been rediscovered. Shaw is a particularly Bond-like villain, with his destroy-the-world ambitions and his bevy of beautiful lady sidekicks — Emma Frost doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking gorgeous in her white bikinis and diamond-hard mutant body shield, but she does that well.
It’s not all serious. The overall sense I’m left with after First Class, for all its heaviness, is of a film that’s sweet, funny, and pleasingly fast-paced. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, Charles’ adopted sister and a shapeshifting mutant, is delightful, particularly when she begins to enjoy a “normal” teen crush experience with another mutant, Hank (played by the adorable Nicholas Hoult). There are some hilarious and just-right cameos that make you laugh and sigh at the same time with how perfect they are and how naturally they are worked into the story.
Who says weirdos don’t have the most fun and get the most done? I love X-Men: First Class because it treats its characters with such wonderful admiration, even the most complicated and hard-to-like among them, that you utterly and instinctively sympathize with them. Who wouldn’t want to be a mutant, even given the abuse they suffer at the hands of “normal” society? It’s not Shakespeare, but, as breezy, thoughtful summer comic-book movies go, it’s almost there.