More like a close second
By Michael S. Goldberger Special to the Observer
When I was young, a look back at how one of my superheroes began his life of noble and illustrious deeds always tickled my fancy. But, as “X-Men” is not among those comic books I read under bedcovers via flashlight late into the night and, alas, I have now reached the age of majority, “X-Men: First Class” holds no special place in my heart.
Still, judging director Matthew Vaughn’s action-filled back-story solely on its individual merits, sans the devotional baggage of a card-carrying enthusiast, well, it’s not half bad. Nevertheless, while agreeably acted and astutely filmed, it doesn’t veer very far from the typical template of its genre. While I view this from the perspective of the Great Unwashed, as equipped to discern its historical accuracy as I am likely to hear a silent dog whistle, a steady stream of witty references and paeans to the franchise should win fan approval. Whether all the minutiae and canonical postulations are there, I respectfully leave to their Sanhedrin.
Insofar as its role as a sci-fi piece is concerned, it smartly does what’s expected. That is, tell the truth. Let’s face it. The real truth is in fiction, between the lines, uncompromised by interests that make it harder and harder to get the real skinny on things, especially if money is at stake. Science fiction is storytelling’s philosophical, moral-spouting cousin.
The lesson taught in this recollection of how the league of human mutants known as X-Men came to be is nothing less than tolerance. In the first scene of the first act, we are transported to what surely must be an example of the least merciful venue of all time. In Auschwitz, Eric Lehnsherr, a Jewish teenager, captures the interest of Dr. Schmidt.
Violently torn from his parents during initial incarceration in the Nazi German death camp, young Lehnsherr displays his ability to act as a human magnet, invisibly tugging at the gates that divide his family. Embodying the madness of genetic experimentation, Dr. Schmidt figures he can tap into the phenomenon and, of course, rule the world.
Meanwhile, in peaceful contrast to that evil, the camera pans to a pastoral, castle-like estate in Westchester, N.Y. There, fortunate and telepathically privileged, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier meets Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the female mutant who will become his Platonic soul mate, also to be referred to as Mystique.
Fast-forward and Kevin Bacon’s Dr. Schmidt, ever young looking thanks to mutant gene inspiration and now known as Sebastian Shaw, is instigating international bad vibes that will ultimately foment the Cuban missile crisis. This megalomania isn’t lost on Erik (Michael Fassbender) who, with Nazi hunter zeal, travels to Argentina to settle a score.
Skip a beat or two and certain parties within the CIA are in on the scene, figuring how they can harness this new power to work on their behalf. Naturally, not everyone is in concert on the potential, albeit convincingly promoted by Oliver Platt’s glibly portrayed insider known simply as Man in Black Suit.
Even so, the mysterious operative invites Erik and Charles to his Virginia installation in a sort of hip variation on the Manhattan Project. There, they meet boy genius/jet plane designer Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) who, unbeknownst to the CIA, just happens to be a fellow mutant. They have the beginnings of a team, and set out to recruit others.
Now bear in mind, if you’re going to truly imbibe this stuff, every mutant has a specific super attribute and some are given two names. Among those gathered at the secret compound, for example, Armando Muñoz (Edi Gathegi), also known as Darwin, can adapt to any environment.
Dig it when he sticks his head in an aquarium and grows gills. Others drawn to campus are, Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), who screams supersonically (don’t want your kid emulating him); Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) grows plasma rings from his body; and Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), previously an exotic dancer, sprouts wings and spits acid. Boy, wonder who inspired her character.
Unfortunately, these neophytes quickly show that they aren’t quite ready for prime time heroics. And it couldn’t come at a less opportune time as the components that make for summer blockbuster success kick in here like gangbusters. This means endless battles, lots of loud music, special effects and whatever else it takes to obscure sensible thought.
Happily, the basic ethos survives the perfunctory cataclysms well enough to explain the eventual rift among X-Men and lay the foundation for events to follow in films we’ve already seen. Thus, in addition to pleasing adherents, “X-Men: First Class” also serves as an introductory course for daring viewers curious to learn what all the shouting is about.
“X-Men: First Class,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Matthew Vaughn and stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. Running time: 132 minutes