X-Men: First Class (Film)

(Heads up:  “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is a fantastic film, intriguing and full of surprises.  Jim Carrey is at his best with a wonderful supporting cast.  A full-length critique will be posted soon.)

If anyone has romantic notions of what it’s like to be a super hero, remember what occurred in the first “X-Men” film.  My critique published August 2000 stated that a girl’s “innocent kiss” with her boyfriend put him in a coma for three weeks.

I also noted that, “Once puberty hits, [mutants’] diabolical powers operate at full capacity.  Afraid of being found out, they roam the earth…but keep their distance from each other.  You never know who’s telepathic, telekinetic, or a shape-shifter, or who has laser eyes or lightning bolts up their sleeves.  Or a tongue the length of a football field….”

In this prequel (the second one) to the X-Men trilogy (making five films in all), most of the action takes place in the early 1960s.  Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who becomes known later as Professor X, is a dashing Oxford University student who seems to run into other mutants just about everywhere he goes.  He walks into his parents’ spacious kitchen one night, armed with a baseball bat against an intruder, and finds a shape-shifter imitating his mother.

Charles is a world-class telepath: he can read people’s minds without effort.  There’s another reason he knows the smiling blond woman is an imposter: she offers to make him a meal.  ”My mother has never been in this kitchen in her life,” he retorts.

Thus, Raven — whose real skin resembles a cobalt-blue fish — is outed by Charles.  “You don’t have to steal any more,” he says, and invites her to live with his very wealthy family.  (Raven, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is later known as Mystique.)

Charles encounters another (secret) mutant while relaxing at a pub with Raven and isn’t shy about telling her he’s aware of her hidden peculiarity.  (This could become a great pick-up line.)  Whereas he has to read minds to know whose company he’s really in, Raven can detect the guilty chromosome in people’s eyes.  (Marvel Comic Books at one time hinted that some mutants were victims of radiation.)

Charles cheerfully interacts with attractive females (albeit mutants), publishes a thesis on mutation, and graduates from Oxford.  He’s approached by Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), an agent from the CIA who wants to know exactly what he knows.  This sets the stage for the formation of the motley crew of superhuman men and women who will become known as X-Men.

Juxtaposed with scenes of Charles breezing through life is footage of another mutant who hasn’t been as fortunate.  The film opens with the heart-wrenching spectacle of Erik Lehnsherr’s forced separation from his parents in a concentration camp in occupied Poland in 1944.  In great anguish, Erik (Michael Fassbender), later known as Magneto, exhibits a supernatural power that puts him at the mercy of a diabolical scientist known as Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). When he witnesses the horrific death of a family member, a terrifying ability is unleashed from deep within him.  Dr. Schmidt delightedly informs, him, “We unlock your gift with anger and pain.  We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”

Later, as an adult, an embittered Erik roams the earth in search of Dr. Schmidt, seeking to kill him.  He finds two former Nazis in Argentina, shows them the numbers tattooed on his arm and informs them, “I’m Frankenstein’s monster, and I’m looking for my creator.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Schmidt — who is actually a mutant with the amazing ability to absorb and discharge energy which somehow enables him to reverse his aging process — has changed his name to Sebastian Shaw.  He has grandiose plans to control the world.  In a nightclub one night, he chastises a non-compliant U.S. Army Colonel while stick-thin women strut around in their underwear: “You blocked our nukes in Turkey,” he complains.

The Colonel suddenly shows up at the Pentagon’s War Room heavily promoting Sebastian Shaw’s agenda.  Two of the people sitting in on Sebastian’s meeting with the Colonel had been mutants, including one with the ability to control minds and disguise his appearance.  The other mutant was Emma Frost (January Jones), dressed in — you guessed it — white underwear.  A formidable telepath featured heavily in this film, she’s a slim blond whose body can transform into the glittery, impenetrable density of a diamond.  (In truth, Emma looked like she was dying for a cheeseburger.)

Back to Charles and company.  Moira, who had been spying on the Colonel in the nightclub while dressed only in her Skivvies, flies Charles and Raven out to CIA headquarters in Virginia where they become sponsored by a mysterious agent and agree to help thwart Sebastian’s plans.  Now it’s inevitable that Charles and Erik, who’s still pursuing the former doctor, will meet.

“I thought I was alone,” remarks a shocked Erik after Charles rescues him from a self-destructive attempt to destroy Sebastian.

Charles and Erik work together to search out and recruit mutants to work for the CIA’s newly formed Division X (but not before outing a scientist already working for the federal agency who has simian-type feet).  One of the first places they investigate is a strip club (surprise, surprise) where they enlist a woman hiding huge insectoid wings.

Enthusiasts of the X-Men saga know that Erik and Charles ultimately become serious antagonists.    In fact, this film reveals why Erik broke away from the X-Men to start the renegade Brotherhood of Mutants.  The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 occurs, in which the X-Men become major participants, and this is what the film is building up to.  There is TV footage of President John F. Kennedy.

The film (132 minutes) is complex, fast-paced and absorbing.  James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who play the two major characters, are fine actors.  It’s obvious the film’s target audience is predominantly male, but it’s still great escapism.  However, the broad spectrum of supernatural powers (an ultrasonic screamer, a creator of whirlwinds, etc.) eventually seem to bleed into each other rather than stand out.

One of the best moments in the film is when Charles and Erik, heavily recruiting, find Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) hunched morosely over a drink in a bar.  Approaching him from behind, and before they can say a word, he growls, “Go f–k yourself.”  They tuck their tails between their legs, turn around, and leave.  With so many dubious super heroes around, it’s nice to know there’s an undisputed alpha male in the house.  Too bad it’s only a cameo appearance.

(PG-13: woman murdered by man shooting gun at near point-blank range; seduction attempt; mutants with missiles; underfed women wearing lingerie)

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