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Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

** SPOILERS **

 Groovy, Baby

Set in 1962 during the turbulent days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, X-Men: First Class daringly and thrillingly melds colorful comic book superhero action with the panache of Sean Connery's James Bond movies along with the wink-wink political incorrectness of Mad Men. The result of this jazzy Marvelous mashup is the coolest, swingingest, grooviest superhero movie of all-time.

At its core, First Class is about the bromance gone tragically wrong between telepath Charles Xavier and master of magnetism Erik Lensherr, the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of mutantkind. Portrayed in the December of their years by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan, Charles and Erik are energically embodied as studly young chaps by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Together, Charles and Erik lead the first team of mutants to save the world from the Cuban Missile Crisis (a fact seemingly omitted from our history books). A long time ago, they used to be friends.

McAvoy charms as Xavier, a brilliant, cocksure youth with a lustrous head of hair, the full use of his legs, and driven by eternal optimism. McAvoy's desire in taking the role was to depict old Professor X as the opposite of the sexless, wheelchair-confined saint in the previous X-Men movies. What fun to watch Charles trading on his smarts and wit to pick up girls at Oxford, beguiling them with his theories on genetic mutation of all things. (Charles may have been the man who coined the word "groovy".) As the future Magneto, Fassbender is properly conflicted, equally driven by his desire for revenge from the tragedy of his childhood in a Polish concentration camp while forming his greater world view about the role of mutants in the world. Xavier believes in acceptance and co-existence between human and mutant. Magneto, separation and domination. When the pivotal moment that paralyzes Xavier for the rest of his life occurs, it's truly a devastating shock.

And yet, First Class' heart beats just as strongly for the friendship between Xavier and Mystique, who were inseparable confidants since childhood, and how their lifelong friendship shattered over their increasingly opposing worldviews. In a mainstream movie star-making turn, Jennifer Lawrence is a knockout as a sexy and volatile Mystique. Lawrence finally shows us what makes Mystique tick; how she's driven by her lifelong insecurities as a mutant who can look like anyone but will never be accepted for her true blue, scaly appearance. (A brief moment when Mystique shapeshifts into the body of Rebecca Romijn brought the house down.) When Erik successfully seduces her and Mystique rejects her oldest friend Charles, choosing to stand beside Magneto in the end, it colors the entire X-Men saga as we know it with genuine loss and a grand sense of personal tragedy.

Among First Class' geeky revelations: it's Mystique who came up with the idea of codenames, and she personally names "Professor X" and "Magneto". We discover the secret of Mystique's genetics that allow her to age so slowly, she may well be immortal. Her genes are so potent, Dr. Hank McCoy injecting himself with a "cure" gleaned from her blood cells turns him into a furry blue Beast. Hey, what is it with blue people in X-Men, anyway? Mystique, Beast, Nightcrawler. They're basically their own Blue Man Group. All that's missing is Tobias Funke from Arrested Development saying "I just blue myself".

First Class positively revels in the flower power of youth, as Charles and Erik go on an entertaining worldwide recruitment drive to find the inaugural crop of what will become known as the X-Men (and the Brotherhood of Mutants). In one of the greatest cameos in movie history, one muttonchop-sporting, cigar-chomping potential X-Man tells Charles and Erik to "go fuck yourselves". Along with Mystique as their ring leader, the first class of X-Men are: Nicholas Hoult as the Beast, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Lucas Till as Havok, Zoe Kravitz as Angel (a different one), Edi Gathegi as Darwin (who?). They're thinly but sufficiently sketched characters, and we bond with them as they bond with each other, getting drunk at the CIA compound they demolish while showing off their mutant powers. Even better is a breakneck training montage at the X-Mansion showcasing the hilarious methods by which Xavier trains his X-Men, like defenestrating Banshee to get him to fly.

For villains, First Class offers us the Hellfire Club led by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the best Bond villain who was never in a Bond movie. Bacon is an odious scream as the evil Shaw, a long-lived mutant who used to be the Nazis' happiest concentration camp kommendant and is responsible for Erik Lensherr becoming Magneto. Now living in the lap of sleek 1960s luxury, Shaw is busy manipulating the Superpowers into the Cuban Missile Crisis and certain worldwide Armageddon. January Jones from Mad Men is right at home in the 1960s as Shaw's telepathic and diamond-skinned White Queen, the lingerie-clad Emma Frost. Frost boasts two mutant powers, as if trying to compensate for Jones lacking the ability to convey basic human emotion in her acting. Their henchmen are Azazel, basically an evil red version of the teleporting Nightcrawler from X2: X-Men United, and Riptide, an evil Asian guy who breaks wind. Whatever, at least neither of them are Toad.

X-Men: First Class joyfully recreates the early 1960s with gorgeous costumes, stunning production design, and even stylishly throwback closing credits. First Class also raises eyebrows as with its unabashed political incorrectness. Buxom women, including Lawrence, Jones and Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggert, flaunt their charms in lingerie, miniskirts, and go-go boots. (The camera lovingly lingers more than once on Frost's milky curves and Mystique's blue moon.) There's a moment that's stunning in its rude audacity when Bacon attempts to woo the young X-Men to his side, asks them if they'd choose to live as "slaves" and the camera whooshes over to Darwin, the black guy in the group. Moments later, who joins Bacon's evil Hellfire Club? Angel and Darwin, the two minorities, leaving the Caucasian X-Men on side of right. The first X-Man to die? Darwin.

At well over two hours, X-Men: First Class hurtles along with confidence and boundless energy. Like the best Bond movies, it's a globe-spanning lark, pure escapist entertainment. Even with the personal drama between its core characters and the grander themes of the price of tolerance and acceptance ("mutant and proud" becomes Mystique's mantra) which are the hallmark of X-Men, First Class never lags on the X-Factor: Fun. It's a bona fide success for the Marvel team up of director Matthew Vaughn (fresh off his superhero gangbusters Kick-Ass) and producer Bryan Singer (director of X-Men and X2: X-Men United). Singer and Vaughn prove themselves the dynamic duo of X-Men. Here's hoping when it comes time to churn out welcome sequels, their collaboration doesn't go the way of their cinematic counterparts Xavier and Magneto.

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