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Whee, another origin story!  The mighty minds at Marvel Studios must’ve felt they’d met the end of the line with their X-Men movie series after a pretty darn good first film in 2000 and an even better sequel in 2003, the quality standard came to a screeching halt after the shrill, throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-hope-it-sticks threequel from 2006.  In what is a reboot of the whole franchise, we find just how the two characters around whom the main X-Men storyline is centered came to be the mutants they are today.

In a flashback to the original film, X-Men: First Class opens at a concentration camp during World War II, where a young Jewish boy is being separated from his parents who are marked for extermination.  As Gestapo drag the hysterical child away, the iron gates and fences around the camp bend as if being pulled by some unseen force.  An officer observing the phenomena isn’t particularly surprised by it.  When asked to repeat the miracle, the boy is unable to command it even under the threat of a horrible loss.  That tragedy and the promise of vengeance behind it irrevocably shapes Erik Lensherr into the man – and mutant -- he will become.  Meanwhile, in far more bucolic surroundings, a wealthy youngster discovers an unusual intruder rummaging for food in his kitchen.  The scavenger, a cobalt-blue shape-shifting little girl called Raven becomes a surrogate sister to the lonely boy who is also possessed of unique talents; primarily the ability to read minds.  While we are watching these strange happenings occur around these very young people, there are others more experienced and learned in the way of these supernatural gifts that are more than happy to use them to their best advantage.   Moving forward almost twenty years later, at the height of the Cold War, a CIA operative spots some very fishy doings between a politician and a mysterious power broker; so odd in fact, that the agent reaches out to understand the incredible feats she can’t believe she’s just seen.  An expert on human mutation is called away from his halcyon days at Oxford to explain how people can zap into smoke and teleport instantly across the country and create miniature tornados in the palms of their hands.  The newly minted professor, Charles Xavier, consults with an unbelieving CIA, which immediately views his psychic powers and the talents of his “sister” Raven as a threat, but one without which they cannot find the answers they need.  It’s the investigation into a criminal nest of mutants that finds Charles crossing paths with another exceptional person, who is on his way to finally face the tormentor of his childhood.  The pair joins forces and with the help of the brilliant young scientist, Hank McCoy, himself a special fella, Erik and Charles use cerebral technology to track other gifted folks to join their cause against the devious Sebastian Shaw and his band of merry mutants’ plan to start World War III.

Such good fun, this.  Not only because it’s a well-written and plausible origin tale, but because it’s possibly the only X-Men film where the special effects seemed a mere accessory to the relationship dynamics, power struggles and humour in the sharp, intelligent script.  Knowing what we know about the X-Men from the comics and films only made this backstory juicier.  To be aware in advance that Charles and Erik will become the yin-and-yang of the mutant world, separating to set up their own factions as Professor X and Magento, made their story even more absorbing.  To know which side many of the young mutants we meet here, including some of the best known ones like Beast, Mystique and Banshee, will choose – whether to get along with the human world or dominate it -- makes their arrival at their decisions even more fascinating.  X-Men: First Class is also a wry, clever bit of goods with some wonderfully planned cameos and unexpected moments; like finding out the genteel and dignified Charles Xavier readers and audiences have come to know was a player in his university years, mesmerising the local pulchritude with his exceptional smarts.  Geek score!  The in-jokes alone are worth the price of a ticket for any Marvel fan; whilst trying out Cerebro for the first time, McCoy asks Xavier, “Are you sure we can’t shave your head?” Xavier: “Don’t touch my hair.”  It’s almost enough to make up for the inexplicable lack of a Stan Lee cameo.  There is some cheese in this soufflé; Charles’ speech to Erik, who still can’t control his powers, sounded more X-enu than X-Men.  I thought I was watching a Dianetics commercial with all the affirmational bla-bla.  The other sour note is, incredibly, some of the special effects.  Why does Beast in full blue bloom look like the one member of the Broadway show Cats who came from Smurf Village?  The make-up for both him and Mystique look awful, with the latter’s head looking lumpy and pumpkin-sized and her scales appearing to be made of flaking oatmeal.  Another supe named Angel Salvador sprouts terribly thin dragonfly wings and disgustingly spits some kind of fire bomb out of her mouth.  Her action scenes were so bad we could have been watching The Bugaloos.  In contrast, there are some great moments of fire power, like Shaw’s invasion of the baby X-Men’s government-funded nursery and Havoc’s learning to control his very cool powers, but overall, like I said, it’s a good thing the script (- co-written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn of last year’s brilliant Kick-Ass) is mostly great.

And there is the eye candy: I have raved long and loud about my adoration of the excellent James McAvoy (or as he’s better known on this site, MmmcAvoy, give or take an m), but the combination of McAvoy along with the handsome Michael Fassbender (lately seen in this year’s Pride and Prejudice) affecting power poses as he moves metal (- and every woman’s pulse) while looking quite fetching in either a wet suit, sixties-sharp turtleneck/leather jacket combo or even the bright yellow X-Men spandex, is possibly too much.  (There’s McAvoy from Scotland, Fassbender’s half-Irish, and Brit Nicholas Hoult as Beast; why then is the very Irish character Banshee portrayed as an American stoner?)  There’s also one of Shaw’s cronies, a character called Riptide, played by Alex Rodriguez, who is the spitting image of the gorgeous Billy Wirth from 1987’s The Lost Boys.  In the gentlemen’s corner, there is a variety of tiny miniskirts and an abundance of not-entirely period-accurate lingerie on most of the female cast members, including Rose Byrne, who seems to have found her inner sexpot since 2010’s Get Him to the Greek.  January Jones is cast as the female big bad, Emma Frost, another telepath who can also transform her body into a diamond casing, making her virtually invincible.  Frost should’ve been a role to chomp into with both jaws, but Jones seems clueless as to how to accomplish this.  Instead she doesn’t do much more than stand about in bras, stockings, big hair and Emma Peel’s Avengers’ castoffs, looking mildly PMS-y and not seeming to understand the words that are coming out of her mouth.  It felt a waste of what should’ve been a great character.  Eye-candy she may be (- albeit badly lit and looking far older than Frost is probably meant to), but unfortunately, nothing more.

Quibbles aside, there’s far more to like about X-Men: First Class than not.  It’s smart, witty and fun; perfect summer viewing and a worthy entry to the higher echelons of the Marvel cinematic pantheon.  It certainly removes the sour taste of the terrible third X-Men film and that in itself is a blessing.  It’s a fine reboot for the franchise and I would happily look forward to another blast from the X-Men past.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 3rd, 2011

 

 

 

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(Courtesy of  20th Century Fox)

 

 

 

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