Length: 132 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 13+. There are numerous action scenes and violence (including some suggested and seen torture scenes, as well as stabbings, gunshots and death by fire), brief nudity (although it’s the mutant kind, so you don’t see anything), some implied sexual situations, profanity and emotional trauma caused by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Banish those memories of the ultimately unsatisfying “X-Men” trilogy and the mind-numbing awfulness of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” “X-Men: First Class” is exhilarating, refreshing and undeniably awesome — most everything new and old fans of the comic books could ask for.
By Roxana Hadadi
Eleven years ago, the first “X-Men” film adaptation seemed good enough. It gave us a roguish Wolverine in Hugh Jackman and offered up a smilingly sinister Magneto in Ian McKellen, but as a child who grew up on the Saturday morning cartoon, I was disappointed the characters weren’t as snarky or tortured — and weren’t wearing those yellow and blue spandex suits. 2003’s “X2” was slightly better, ending things on a fittingly despairing note, but 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? I could list all the flaws in those movies, but I’m pretty sure most readers would be disgusted by my rampant nerdiness.
So “X-Men: First Class,” the new prequel to those films, needed to fill a void in my heart, a vast schism settled deep into my childhood memories of chomping on breakfast while watching Professor X and Magneto battle it out. How wonderfully does “X-Men: First Class” take me back to a simpler time, when my parents serving up French toast instead of cereal on Saturday morning was the best news of my week? So. Much.
Director Matthew Vaughn, who also helmed the comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass” in 2010, makes the X-Men tale his own with a new backstory that fiddles a bit with the comic books’ continuity by setting the tale in the 1962, right before the Cuban missile crisis. Human society is just becoming aware of mutants, who hide their powers in order to fit in with those around them. Some, like Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, from “Winter’s Bone”) and Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), yearn for a day when society will fully accept them. Others, like Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, from “Jane Eyre”), don’t give a damn about what society wants — in fact, he’d rather tear it apart.
After his family was killed during the Holocaust (in an opening scene that nods to the first “X-Men” film, which started the same way), Erik became hardened, jaded, cruel, consumed with finding and killing the Nazis who ransacked his life. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who grew up in a posh home, received his Ph.D. from Oxford University and dreams of a peaceful future when humans accept mutants’ differences and everyone lives in “serenity.”
The two come together when C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, from “Bridesmaids”) uncovers that bad guy mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who can absorb energy and turn it into overwhelming power, plans to manipulate the U.S. and Russia into nuclear war, paving the way for when mutants can take over. “Genes are the key … a new future for mankind,” Shaw says, and joining him are his lover, Emma Frost (January Jones), and henchmen Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González), who revel in hurting as many humans as possible in their quest for dominance.
How the relationships between these young mutants develop, and who wins the battle between Erik, Charles and their band of ragtag teens versus Shaw, Emma Frost and their cronies, will give clues about the future of the X-Men and the comic book tales we nerds already know. The film delights when it gives us peeks into the men and women we know Charles, Erik, Raven and Hank will become, and those scenes are certainly the ones that will delight old-school fans the most.
That doesn’t mean the film won’t work for those new to the X-Men; in fact, there’s enough character development and impressive acting that the film will immerse most anyone. Fassbender and McAvoy, both critically heralded for their respective turns in films like “Hunger” and “The Last King of Scotland,” jazz up their established characters with new personalities we haven’t seen before. Charles is more self-absorbed, flirting with a variety of pretty girls while criticizing Raven for her preoccupation with her looks, and his growth into a supportive teacher and mentor is more impactful because of that initial superficiality. In contrast, Erik is more desperate and dynamic, a whirlwind of hurt that will obliterate anything in his path, friend or foe — “Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he snarls. With McKellen’s older version of the character, we had a quietly conniving man dedicated to his goal; here, we get the ruthlessness and sentimentality that shaped him. Fassbender is fabulous, and the film works so well mostly on his rage alone.
But the movie is certainly long — lasting nearly two and a half hours — and it resembles “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in its lengthy final act, which includes lots of CGI effects and a somewhat confusing dance from U.S. ship to Russian ship to X-Men jet to Cuba and back again. You think the film’s over, and then it’s not — and though the closing scenes do set up much of the characters’ future development, they certainly last a while.
Until then, however, the PG-13 film moves at a quick pace that will satisfy a teen audience. There are numerous scenes of violence (including some implied and executed torture sequences), many deaths (including one where a character is burned from the inside out), some suggested sexual situations (like a strip club and characters in bed together) but no nudity, and some profanity. Teenagers older than 13 should be OK with all this, but parents should know that the Holocaust context and the related emotional trauma are certainly things teens may think about after the film is over.
“X-Men: First Class” isn’t flawless, unfortunately, and drags at points when the film should have been most overwhelming. But it’s a jaunty way to reset the franchise in a more youthful direction, an exhilaratingly good film when it wants to be — and I can overlook a slightly more boring final 15 minutes for all the good “X-Men: First Class” gives me until then. Plus, did I mention the yellow and blue suits? Because they’re awesome.