It's time for A Portrait of the Mutants As Young Men, I mean, X-Men: First Class. This summer flick is a prequel to the X-Men movies (and Wolverine: Origins), showing the events that led to Professor X, Magneto, and the X-Men (and their various devices). It's not bad, though as with the previous X-Men movies the large cast proves a bit unwieldy.
X-Men: First Class is primarily about Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto, and from the opening it's clear that their different experiences will lead them in different directions. Charles lives virtually alone in an English mansion, and when he meets the blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) he is thrilled to meet another mutant (Charles has telepathic abilities) and "adopts" her as his sister. Meanwhile, in a German concentration camp, Erik's magnetic powers attract a camp doctor (Kevin Bacon) -- who kills Erik's mother in front of him to make his powers surface.
Jump ahead to1962, and the paths of Charles and Erik are about to cross. Erik (Michael Fassbender) has found the Nazi who killed his mother -- and he now goes by Sebastian Shaw, a powerful mutant who can absorb energy and then unleash it. Shaw also heads a group of mutants called the Hellfire Club -- telepath/diamond-skin Emma Frost (January Jones), teleporting Azazel (Jason Flemying), and whirlwind creator Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) -- who are out to start a war between the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the Hellfire Club, which leads her to an expert on genetics -- Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) -- and his "sister" Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Despite their different beliefs about humanity -- Charles wants to fit in, Erik is distrustful -- the two find a common goal, and even friendship, in stopping Shaw and helping other mutants.
The "first class" are mutant kids brought together, to train in their powers: the flying and flame-spitting Angel (Zoe Kravitz); the sonic-screaming Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones); the instantly-adaptive Darwin (Edi Gathegi); the energy ring-producing Havok (Lucas Till); and finally, Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). The latter is really the only member of the "class" with depth: a brilliant nerd who's ashamed of his powerful-yet-grotesque feet, Hank and Raven have feelings for each other, but he's focused on looking normal while she wants to be proud to be a mutant.
Like the previous three X-Men movies, X-Men: First Class suffers from too many characters: Most of them can be completely summarized in one sentence, and a few don't even have lines. This movie also jumps around geographically as much as a James Bond film -- Germany! England! Switzerland! Russia! America! Cuba! -- and while it doesn't make a parody of the 1960s, it also doesn't tap into the racial conflict that inspired the X-Men series. The tension in this film is all between the U.S. and Russia, not between whites and minorities.
Since the movie is mainly about Professor X and Magneto, it falls on McAvoy and Fassbender to carry the movie -- which they do decently. It's strange to see Professor X, the responsible leader of the X-Men, as a carefree youth (he uses genetics as a pick-up line in a bar), yet McAvoy does convey a sense of both decency and responsibility. As for Fassbender, his Magneto is less interesting, driven by revenge through the movie and not seeing the irony that his ultimate goal matches that of the target of his revenge.
Comic fans will enjoy some first appearances of items from the comics (including the Blackbird and Cerebro), and fans of the previous films will get a kick out of two cameos, one of which was virtually mandatory. Director Matthew Vaughn does what he can, but while the action sequences are very good, the large cast makes it hard for us to care about anyone but Charles, Erik, and Raven. X-Men: First Class is enjoyable for fans of the X-Men comics (yo) and movies (somewhat), but it would have benefited from more focus.
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch