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AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Murray Close
In this film publicity image released by 20th Century Fox, Michael Fassbender portrays Erik Lehnsherr in a scene from “X-Men: First Class.”

Going back makes new X-Men truly first class

Posted: June 9, 2011 - 9:43am

“X-Men: First Class”
Twentieth Century Fox
2 hours, 12 minutes

“X-Men” holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Marvel comics movie to really hit the right tone and was the precursor to a whole host of great superhero movies, influencing everything from “Spider-Man” to “Iron Man,” even “The Dark Knight.” The difference was that “X-Men” took the material seriously. The filmmakers created a real world for their characters to inhabit, not some candy-colored, goofball Joel Schumacher nightmare which is what killed the “Batman” franchise for so long.

When the sequel came along, surprise, it was better than the original. “X2” brought even more heart and weight to the characters, expanding the storyline and losing some of the sillier aspects of the first film. I loved it, and I wasn’t alone. For a while there, mainstream critics were calling “X2” the best superhero film ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it was very good.

And then it all fell apart. Bryan Singer, the talented director who brought us the first two films, as well as “The Usual Suspects,” left to go and direct the next “Superman” movie and who did the brilliant suits at 20th Century Fox get to replace him?. The “Rush Hour” guy. For “X3,” Brett Ratner came in with a despicable script, one that trashed everything the series had been building, tossing out key characters as if they were used kleenex, and suffusing the entire production with a goofy action vibe. It was just bad, and has left naught but bitterness for a legion of fans. The film was so soul-crushing that, though it was obviously set up for a sequel, no one has even pretended to get a continuation going.

The two films in the series to follow, “Wolverine” and this week’s “X-Men: First Class,” have both been prequels, the thinking being that going backward has got to be better than going forward. “Wolverine” wasn’t a particularly good movie either, but luckily, with “First Class,” things may be returning to form.

The movie begins with a nice extension of a very clever scene from the first film. A sad little family, mother, father and young son are being led through a concentration camp in WWII-era Germany. When the boy is separated from his family, he freaks, screaming and waving his arms frantically. Suddenly, the barbed-wire and metal framed gate begins to twist like a pretzel — Magneto is born. That much is in the original movie, but what follows is a further sequence of events depicting Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) and a particularly evil Nazi named Sebastian Shaw, played with gleeful villainy by Kevin Bacon. We are also treated to childhood sequences of the-yet-to-become-professor Xavier and of young Mystique, the blue shape-shifting mutant who, along with Rebecca Romijn Stamos’ physique, caused so much talk in the first films.

Fast-forward to the 1960s, “First Class’” present day, and we discover that while Xavier, now played by James McAvoy, has become a swinging college grad student, using his mutant telepathy to hit on chicks in the local taverns, Lehnsherr, now played by Michael Fassbender, has become a Nazi hunter. The two meet, and become fast friends, despite a core difference of opinion about how the emerging mutant population should be approached. Lehnsherr, scarred by his experience with the Nazis, believes that mutants are superior and should take their rightful place, by force, if necessary, before “normal” humans decide to eradicate them. Xavier, ever the scholar, believes in peaceful cooperation and mutual growth. These two have been described as the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King of the superhero world, and it’s brilliant that the film is set in the Sixties, a time of such turbulent change all over the world.

Eventually our pair become a trio with Mystique, and attract the notice of the government, who attempts to recruit them for a CIA offshoot department. There’s a clever and funny sequence where Xavier and Eric travel about finding and gathering other young mutants, eventually coming up with a handful who become the “first class” of the title. The government wants help with a gathering threat in the form of the Soviet Union, but Eric’s got bigger fish to fry in his search for the vanished Sebastian Shaw. If you don’t believe the two threats will eventually merge, you’ve not seen many of these movies.

“First Class” works really well in most areas of the film, playing best in the first three-quarters. The writing, production values, and the overall look of the film is just right — perfectly matching the previous films without looking jarringly higher tech, a major problem with the “Star Wars” prequels. Though this film is, in some sense, a reboot, the writers kept a close watch on continuity and include lots of fun, tiny details that foreshadow later events.

The acting is very good, especially in the case of Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and Fassbender as Magneto. It could be that I was just so relieved that “First Class” was nothing like “X3,” but overall, I really enjoyed this film.

Naturally, there are some problems. The movie feels a little too earnest, at times, like maybe it’s trying too hard to impress on the fans that it appreciates the characters. Almost a reverse backlash against the Ratner film. The music, so good in the first two films, is too soaring, too grandiose here, verging into the silly, and, as often happens, the big battle scene at the end gets a little out of control, believability-wise.

But that’s all OK. I can deal with a few rough patches when the whole is so well thought out, and so respectful of what I, and most fans, like about the series. “First Class” is the title, but it’s also a prescient review.

Grade: B+

“X-Men: First Class” is rated PG-13 for comic book violence, language, and sensuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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