Now available on DVD, “X-Men: First Class” helps explain its predecessors, which is a pretty tall (but necessary, for me) order. Coming to this now-eleven-year-old series somewhere in the middle, I was in a muddle as to who all these people were, why they changed shapes, names, and occasionally allegiance seemingly without cause, and what it all meant. The Marvel comics on which the series is based were certainly around during my late youth, but I can’t say that I read them.
So it’s helpful that director Matthew Vaughn and seven screenwriters mostly achieve coherence out of a plot that threatens to get away from them for the first hour or so of this two hours plus movie. And a healthy list of characters keeps piling up, along with the bodies in a “PG-13” flick: parents might want to consider carefully before letting their subteens watch unattended. But the spectacle and the special effects are all, um, first class, so there’s something for just about everyone.
It starts out like a World War II movie with a scene set in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. As young Erich Lehnsherr is separated from his mother, he bends the gates between them—without ever touching them. A Nazi experimenter, played with smooth menace by Kevin Bacon, tries to capitalize on the boy’s extraordinary metal-mangling powers.
Cut to Westchester County, same year, but half a physical world and many socio-economic worlds away. A boy, Charles Xavier, discovers a figure that looks and sounds like his mother raiding the family fridge, but he somehow knows she’s an imposter. In fact, she’s a shape-shifter named Raven, whose default skin color is blue. She becomes the focus of the film’s theme about not being ashamed to be different, despite social ostracism by the “normal” humans.
The relationships between and among her and the two males bring focus to the rest of the film. The adult Erich, played like a Bond-in-training by Michael Fassbender, dedicates himself to hunting down Nazis, principally his tormentor, now styling himself Sebastian Shaw. His obsession takes him all over the world and gives us some of the best early scenes. Meanwhile, the rich, brilliant Charles (James McAvoy) and his “sister” are studying at Oxford, where Charles uses his clairvoyance to pick up women. Oh yeah, he’s also picking up a professorship, his thesis dealing with evolution via mutation.
As the story evolves during the early 1960s, Charles and Erich team up to defeat Shaw and his sexy amanuensis, Emma Frost (January Jones, as chilly as her moniker). They also round up some other young mutants—too numerous to detail here—whose special talents have to be trained and channeled. They have about a week to do so in order to settle, wait for it—the Cuban Missile Crisis—which plays out much differently than the historical accounts.
“X-Men: First Class” has holes aplenty, but asking for consistency and realism in this genre would be quibbling, no? I also found Henry Jackman’s score to be bombastic, but again that’s hardly a surprise in this Big Summer Movie, which made Big Money here and abroad. Some good acting, particularly by Fassbender as the younger “Magneto,” covers over the basic comic book silliness and makes for some engaging entertainment.