Although Marvel released the first X-Men comics in 1963, I didn’t buy any of them. After all, comics cost 10-15 cents apiece, and the only liquid assets you had as a 13-year-old kid were those that came from a meager allowance and what you earned at your Kool-Aid stand. Besides, we were all hooked on different series. For me, it was The Fantastic Four and Sub-Mariner from Marvel, and Metal Men from DC Comics.
But “X-Men: First Class” took me back to those days. After a WWII-era prologue that establishes the tragic background of young Erik (who would later become the villainous Magneto), everything else is set in 1962 and evocative of the Sixties. People who didn’t live through the decade will call them “Austin Powers moments,” and there are a number of them in this stylish film–which I think may be the best of the X’s so far, or at least a toss-up with the second film in the series. Some may think that the Cuban Missile Crisis is treated a little facetiously, but I find that it’s in keeping with a comic-book tone that director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “Snatch”) gets right.
For an origin film like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) and a prequel to “X-Men” (2000), “X-2” (2003), and “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), “X-Men: First Class” is surprisingly brisk. We don’t get bogged down in character introductions and development, as is often the case. Instead, it all seems neatly interwoven into the action narrative. And you don’t have to have seen any of the previous “X-Men” films to enjoy this blockbuster. True, it will resonate more and you’ll take more delight if you know already how these characters end up, but there’s plenty of interest and excitement to be had for newbies. In fact, if you come at this fresh, you might have a considerably different opinion of some of them than if you’re lugging all that movie baggage behind you.
We’re introduced to two characters as young boys: Erik Lehnsherr, who is interred in a concentration camp with his family and is revealed to possess the power to move metallic objects, and Charles Xavier, who discovers a young mutant named Raven and seems delighted when anyone else might be frightened. What do they have in common? An “x” gene, for want of a better word, that gives each of them a skill or power ordinary humans don’t have, something that makes them mutants . . . and pariahs.
Fast forward to 1962 and Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on a quest to find and kill the man (Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw) who executed his mother. Meanwhile, Charles (James McAvoy) is eager to round up other mutants like him and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and in a government man in black (Oliver Platt) they find a fellow believer in the potential that such mutants have for the public good. Naturally, the public and the military-industrial complex doesn’t feel that way, and the sense of isolation and “freakishness” that the mutants feel enables Shaw, who used his study of mutants to become one himself, to recruit other powerful mutants in order to take over and rule the world and finally gain some respect.
That’s the main premise, but Vaughn and his six screenwriters deftly interweave political elements leading up to the historic showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev and the two greatest military powers on earth at the time.
In keeping with the tone of the Sixties and all those Bond villains you loved to hate, Bacon cheerfully overacts as the overreaching Shaw. But his boyish appearance could have used a little boost of some kind. I thought Bacon was much more chilling and effective in his 1944 incarnation, rather than as a mutant who absorbs energy and therefore stays young.
We get some character development, but only enough to enable us to understand what’s going on and to care about some of them and despise others. That’s both good and bad. The “round-up” of new X-men (and women) could have been stretched out, but the pace is brisk as everything else, which keeps this action film from bogging down as we’re introduced to a pole dancer with wings who can fly (Zoe Kravitz as Angel), a wimpy guy with ultra-sonic vocal ability (Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee), a guy who transforms himself into a furry beast (Nicholas Hoult as Beast), and a taxi driver whose specialty is adaptation (Edi Gathegi as Darwin). The downside is that none of them get the spotlight as much as some fans would like, because this is essentially a two-character film, with the rest of the mutants relegated to second-class status.
As was the case with most James Bond films, the villains are more interesting, and in this film, gifted with not just cooler abilities but niftier special effects. Shaw’s right-hand woman is a Fembot-looking blonde (January Jones as Emma Frost) who can turn to crystal, and a henchman named Havok (Lucas Till). It’s these supercool sub-villains that make you see that when Kevin Bacon grabs that silly helmet and puts it on, he looks about as menacing as a gladiator in a musical revue.
That’s okay, because mostly “X-Men: First Class” is a blockbuster special effects movie, and in that it excels. There are some fun and memorable scenes–as when Erik pulls a submarine from the sea–and we seldom go five minutes before seeing another transformation or visual effect of some kind, some of which are jaw-dropping. And yes, they’re even more jaw-dropping in 1080p.
“X-Men: First Class” is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language.”
If there’s anything wrong with this transfer (AVC/MPEG-4, 50GB disc), I didn’t see it. I was too busy being blown away by the picture quality. Strong black levels, natural-looking colors, supremely sharp edge delineation, and no evidence of DNR or tampering of any kind make this a strong HD release. “X-Men: First Class” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The audio is just as strong, an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s totally immersive and will fill your viewing area with moviehouse sound. Explosions rock, metal creaks, and the effects–large or small–are brought emphatically to life by an audio that works overtime and handles the low bass with the same adroitness as the high notes. Additional audio options are French, Spanish, and English Descriptive Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
For a blockbuster release, there aren’t a lot of extras, but what’s here is pretty darned good. The gem is “Children of the Atom,” a documentary that runs a little over an hour and spans all sorts of topics, including the transformation from comics to film and the influence of those early 1960s Bond flicks. While there’s no commentary track, a “X Marks the Spot” viewing mode gives you pop-up featurettes (eight or so) that you can watch inserted at various points in the film, or, if you prefer, singly via a bonus features menu.
Fans of deleted scenes get a baker’s dozen here, all quite brief (14 minutes total), and music-lovers can isolate the score to listen to that without interference or distraction. Finally, there’s two minutes worth of test footage for the Banshee/Angel battle, and a “Cerebro: Mutant Tracker” that gives you more bios and clips for mutants from all the X-Men films that you can access with a click.
“X-Men: First Class” is a first-rate action film with great special effects and an effective origin tale to tell–perhaps the best of the X-Men series so far.