Rise of the Mutants
“Best. Comic Book Movie. Evah!” So my inner fangirl is screaming at the moment as she does a little happy Snoopy dance. “X-Men: First Class is totally awesome!” The cooler, more rational part of my brain is looking upon that inner fangirl with something like indulgent, affectionate pity: “Silly, girl, of course it’s not the best anything ever. It’s just a very well done example of a genre that most often gets by on the generosity of its audience, even when it doesn’t deserve it. You’re just glad this movie doesn’t require justifying or excuse-making. ”
My inner fangirl is looking back and going *pfffttt!*
Hoorah! Best. Comic Book Movie. Evah! Huffy questions such as “Is it better than Spider-Man? Huh? Is it better than Iron Man? Well, is it? Is it?” do not deter me. Those movies aren’t perfect either. But they’re great movies anyway. I love those movies. I love how they embrace their inherent cheesiness and goofiness as a complement to, not a distraction from, their proud profundity, as if to say, “Who says weirdoes don’t have the most fun and get the most done?” And I love First Class for the same reason (among others): It is so gloriously itself, and it treats its characters with such wonderful admiration, even the most complicated and hard-to-like among them, that you utterly and instinctively sympathize with them. Who wouldn’t want to be a mutant, even given the abuse they suffer at the hands of “normal” society?
Has it really been nine years since the bitingly trenchant X2: X-Men United smacked us with its metaphors for a terrorized, terrified nation facing a seemingly unknowable enemy? First Class feels like the other bookend on the post-9/11 decade, for even though it rewinds the X-Men franchise to the 1960s, it couldn’t be more pertinent to today. A mutant baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon [Frost/Nixon, Where the Truth Lies], never more villainous, or having so much fun with it), is attempting to manufacture a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, in order to wipe out the “normal” humans and accelerate the mutagenic process and create more posthumans like him and his friends. The year? 1962. Yup: this is the “real” story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that alone makes this a deliciously odd tale tinged with satire, placing First Class somewhere in an alternate realm just to the right of reality, at the intersection between Dr. Strangelove and an Oliver Stone conspiracy fantasy.
And boy, is it swank! Director Matthew Vaughn has given us an X-Men movie that’s less like his superhero sendup Kick-Ass and more like his elegant crime drama Layer Cake — not a lot more, but still: this is a groovy, cinematical iconic 1960s we get here, stylish and snazzy to look at but also effortlessly cool in attitude. With its sleek smoothness, this could almost be a lost early James Bond flick that’s been rediscovered: Shaw is a particularly Bond-like villain, with his destroy-the-world ambitions and his bevy of beautiful lady sidekicks — January Jones (Mad Men, Pirate Radio) as Emma Frost doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking gorgeous in her white bikinis and diamond-hard mutant body shield, but she does that well.
The heart of the movie is the push and pull between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy [Gnomeo & Juliet, Wanted], excellent as always), who can read minds and control the thoughts of others, and Erik Lehnsherr (the riveting Michael Fassbender [Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds], who will be a huge star after this), who can make metal do his bidding. We saw, in the first X-Men movie, the endpoint of their relationship, at which they are bitter enemies on either side of a hard line, divided over how best to interact with unmutated humans (Lehnsherr sees violent conflict as the only option; Xavier wants to work peacefully together). Here, we witness their meeting and the beginning of what is almost instantly a powerful friendship and complementary working partnership, though they are in contention instantly as well. Where is the boundary between freedom and slavery? Does torture work, and should we be above it even if it does? These questions are explored through their arguments with comic-book-scaled subtlety: one scene in which the two men need to get information about Shaw out of Frost is shocking from a number of angles. The brilliant thing about it all is that both Xavier and Lehnsherr are at least partly correct in their perspectives, and that though we’ve seen their flip sides before, and know where they will end up, the film somehow manages to avoid the feeling of inevitability that comes with prequels and preordained endings.
It’s not all serious. The overall sense I’m left with after First Class, for all its heaviness, is of a film that’s sweet, funny, and pleasingly fast-paced. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Raven, Charles’s adopted sister and a shapeshifting mutant, is delightful, and particular when she begins to enjoy a “normal” teen crush experience with another mutant, Hank (played by the adorable Nicholas Hoult: Clash of the Titans, A Single Man). There are some hilarious and just-right cameos that make you laugh and sigh at the same time with how perfect they are and how naturally they are worked into the story. It’s not Shakespeare… but, as breezy, thoughtful summer comic-book movies go, almost. Al-damn-most.
• X-Men: Days of Future Past movie review: time for hope
• X-Men: Apocalypse movie review: everyone knows the third movie is always the worst
• X-Men: Dark Phoenix movie review: dark matter, done way too light