Comic book movies have an interesting problem. They have to try to condense 40 years of continuity into a movie that is two hours long. There is a careful balance between making the story accessible to a person who has never read a comic in his or her life and not alienating the hardcore comic book fan-base that will give you repeat business. “X-Men: First Class” strikes the best balance of the two since “The Dark Knight.” The newest installment in the series about the super-powered team tells the origin story of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his relationship with the man who will become his biggest rival, Erik Lensherr (Magneto, to us geeks).
Charles and Erik couldn’t come from more different backgrounds. Charles is born as the only child of a very affluent couple in the USA and Lensherr grows up in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Lensherr’s parents are taken away by soldiers and he tries to stop them and bends the gates using his power of control over metal. A doctor named Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon) witnesses this and tries to recruit the young boy to work for him. When the boy can’t replicate his feat, Shaw kills Erik’s mother, sending him into a rage that destroys several rooms. The movie then jumps ahead to 1962 where we learn that Magneto is trying to track down the man who killed his mother and Xavier has recently been consulted by the government, which is trying to learn more about mutants and their abilities. The movie finds Magneto and Xavier teaming up with the US government in an attempt to track down other mutants. When they do, the mutants are forced to make a difficult decision: should they try to coexist with humans, or should they try to repress them, feeling they are inferior? It is here that the movie (and the comics before it) have really made an interesting statement. Xavier and Magneto are figureheads of the mutant movement in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were of the civil rights movement, with Xavier and King favoring peace and understanding and Magneto and Malcolm X supporting mutant (and black) supremacy and separatism.
The previously released movies following the X-Men have always followed Charles Xavier in his later years, and have portrayed him as a fatherly figure to all sorts of abandoned and abused super-powered humans known as mutants. In “First Class” McAvoy plays Xavier as a young man delivering a performance that is engaging and shows the character as a much more charismatic youth.
While McAvoy was impressive, the performance of Michael Fassbender as his arch-nemesis was even better. Not only does he have the most interesting story of all the mutants, he also has the biggest challenge. Fassbender brings to the character a degree of sympathy that wasn’t there in previous versions; you may not agree with his methods, but you understand why he does the things he does.
The movie surrounds its two strong leads with overall strong supporting actors. Bacon delivers a fairly menacing performance as the devilish Shaw, and Rose Byrne was very good as a human that allies herself with Xavier.
While some fans may be disappointed because they don’t follow the comics, and some average Joes may not quite understand what all these mutants are about, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this movie from start to finish.
3.5 out of 5 stars