It is rare in this age of sequels and extraneous epilogues for a series of movies to reach its fifth installment without flirting with catastrophic failure. That “X-Men: First Class” manages to sidestep the slump that might have easily followed the tolerably disappointing “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is a feat that owes much to the infusion of a fresh cast and the relentlessly rapid pace of this superb prequel.
Whereas “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” tried to sail its tattered story past the end of its trilogy, “X-Men: First Class” wisely realizes that biographical beginnings provide more engaging plot fodder at this point in the series. “X-Men: First Class” focuses on the fascinating, intimate rivalry between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), while also exploring the backgrounds of other key figures of the X-Men saga like Raven and Beast. The film follows Charles and Erik from youth, offering glimpses of each coming to terms with their mutations and abilities, all the way to the moment of bitter fissure that divides them irrecoverably.
Not only does “X-Men: First Class” launch down this intriguing new story arc, but also it jettisons the entirety of its actors from the first four films in the series – a cleansing of the slate and palette that is the prime reason this installment succeeds with such vigor. The film remarkably balances its strong leading men, James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “Wanted”) as Charles and Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Bastards,” “300”) as Erik, with a host of familiar and less famous faces in the supporting roles.
One of the most enjoyable, surprisingly ungimmicky aspects of “X-Men: First Class” is the inclusion of Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the Nazi scientist that discovers Erik and his powers during the German occupation of Poland. The former heartthrob embraces his megalomaniacal character, a simulacrum both in costume and philosophy of what Erik will become as the films progress, with a gusto, serving as both the catalyst for the central conflict of the film and Erik's development into the archvillan of the series.
The X-Men initially assemble at the behest of Charles to combat the specter of thermonuclear war that arises when Mr. Bacon's Sebastian becomes involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nearly two decades after his service in the Third Reich, Sebastian has massed his own force of mutants to terrorize and extort the powers that be. When the CIA catches wind of his malevolent manipulation of a high-ranking official in the American armed forces, it charges Charles with weaponizing the mutant phenomenon in this high water moment of Cold War tensions.
Erik allays himself tentatively with Charles and the other mutants in the government's employ after years spent hunting escaped Nazis across the globe. The relationship that develops between him and Charles is one of fraternal competition and divisiveness, made preposterously literal in their frequent games of chess. Without being heavy-handed, however, the film probes the divergent philosophies held by Charles and Erik about the role of the mutant minority in society that pit the partners against each other in the recently completed trilogy.
“X-Men: First Class” stands shoulders above its cohort of summer blockbusters by combining an excellent story with unfettered action. Director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass,” “Stardust,” “Layer Cake”) resists the viral compulsion endemic in Hollywood the past few years to slap the “3-D” moniker on any potentially high-grossing picture. In doing so, he imbues the films a characteristic often absent in the high-adrenaline landscape of vacation season movies: class.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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