X-MEN FIRST CLASS begins splendidly. The subtle character development, the rich backstory rooted in real history and equally real human experience, the vibrant storyline that is both a sharp consideration of the best and worst of human nature, and a thumping good adventure. And then, once the audience has been lulled into a sense of security about all the good things to come, it fizzles. Not completely, but enough to take the edge off that initial excitement.
Having moved the franchise from the sublime to the ridiculous as a progression in modern times, this prequel essays the tale of how the X-Men got their name during those heady times when the Cold War howled, the battle for civil rights was in its first full flowering, and mutants had not yet revealed themselves to the general public. They were, however, known to the Nazis, in the person of and evil Nazi doctor (Kevin Bacon), whose eagerness to perform experiments upon them is a parallel to the criminal experiments of Dr. Mengele. It’s a trope used to excellent advantage, echoing the real and the fantasy that propels the story into thought-provoking realms. In this case, propelling the future Magneto (Michael Fassbender), the current Erik Lehnsherr, on a mission of retribution against the doctor that leads him to the future Dr. X (James McAvoy), the current Charles Xavier, who in 1962 is a rakish Oxford student doing his dissertation on the positive aspects of mutations. Xavier has already adopted the future Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the current Raven, the waif who wandered into his kitchen when they were both lonely children. She has grown up resentful of Charles' rakish attention to other women, and issues about her real form.
As for evil doctor, now known as Sebastian Shaw, the CIA of 1962, in the person of Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), is already on his trail, though they don’t yet have a clue about who or what he is. Using non-standard CIA techniques, she infiltrates a high-level meeting where she learns that people disappearing in a puff of smoke (Jason Flemyng) or reverting to a diamond-form (January Jones) is not the stuff make-believe. It is, however, the stuff of a fiendish plot designed to manipulate the world’s two superpowers, The United States and the Soviet Union, against one another in a lethal exchange of nuclear weapons set off by the Cuban Missile Crisis.
McAvoy and Fassbender insure that Charles and Erik remain compelling, charismatic characters even when the film itself crumbles around them. The awkward but sincere comraderie makes their search for other mutants to recruit to their currently mutual cause displays the relationship and situation with a marvel of economy. McAvoy with his ebullient cheer, countered and annotated by Fassbender with his dark edginess that longs for revenge and for redemption. Alas, they are pulled down by a script that wallows in the cuteness of its teenage mutants without giving the audience any reason to distinguish them from the standard issue clichés of adolescence, rendering them into an assortment of teenage mutant ninja (not) turtles with the tag line of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” It’s a problem exacerbated by the miscasting of Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Lawrence, so vivid, so gripping in WINTER’S BONE, is reduced to a one-note sulk-fest that should be a commentary on the teen-age obsession with looks, but comes off as a middling acne commercial. As Shaw‘s plaything, Jones is strikingly similar. Clad in stark white and evincing a pout that is neither sultry nor seductive, her irritatingly bland lack of personality causes her to all but fade into the scenery even when distracting a Russian general with her projected wiles.
The effects are big, the action constant, and Bacon scintillates with a swaggering smugness that makes him adorable and despicable at the same time. But by concentrating less and less on the humanity of the story as the film progresses, and more and more of cheap tricks and flat supporting roles, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS shortchanges itself and the audience. It’s greatest failing among many, neglecting the growing warmth between Moira and Charles. What should have been an obvious choice is blithely discarded making a climactic moment at the end a mere piffle, even in McAvoy’s capable hands, and Byrne’s warm and wistful toughness. While much better than the last installment, X-MEN : FIRST CLASS suffers from many of the same failings, prompting the question, why is it so hard to get this franchise back on track where it belongs?