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X-Men: First Class

June 5, 2011
X Men first: Class00001

Marvel is really laying them on thick this year. The latest is X-Men: First Class, which continues the series’ prequels by establishing the origins of the team itself and its basic power dynamics. And yet, is there really anything left to say?

Of course, the two central characters are Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) — eventually to be known as Professor X — and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) — eventually to be known as Magneto. Charles was raised on a palatial estate in Westchester and never wanted for anything, and his mutation is really all in his head anyway. As a result, he’s got pretty much the same view towards human-mutant relations as a privileged white guy has towards race relations, where he acknowledges differences but is sure that everyone can just get along. Erik, on the other hand, was a Jew in Nazi Germany, and has a decidedly more negative viewpoint. As the curtain rises in 1962, he’s a wandering Nazi hunter, seeking out Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the scientist who experimented on him in the camps.

Shaw, though, is a mutant himself, and he shares the anti-human viewpoint. Ascribing mutant powers to the atomic age’s increased background radiation — never mind that Erik’s powers were manifesting before the atomic age began — he’s trying to start a nuclear war to destroy the humans and empower the mutants. To this end, he’s collected the “Hellfire club” of Emma Frost (January Jones), Janos “Riptide” Quested (Álex González), and “Azazel” (Jason Flemyng) to help get the ball rolling towards the Cuban missile crisis.

The Hellfire club is also being investigated by the CIA, and in particular by agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). As she realizes what she’s onto she seeks out Charles, who decides to help, which of course brings him and Erik together. They decide to team up and start tracking down other mutants to enlist their aid, coming up with “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), “Angel” Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Sean “Banshee” Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex “Havok” Summers (Lucas Till), and Armando “Darwin” Muñoz (Edi Gathegi), each with their own powers and minimal character development.

But really, that goes for everyone besides Charles and Erik, and even they’re not exactly the deepest pools. The whole subplot between Mystique and Beast about hiding their appearances comes off as emotionally corny, but that’s far ahead of January Jones, who’s never met an emotion she cared to express. I honestly can’t figure out why that woman keeps getting work except for looking good in a miniskirt. Byrne was a particular disappointment since I know she’s got something going on, but here she’s reduced to playing her best Emma Peel — though Diana Rigg didn’t spend nearly so much of her screen time looking lost and confused.

But who cares? It’s a comic book movie so we want tits and explosions and bright and loud. And, indeed, it’s very bright and very loud. This is particularly true of Henry Jackman’s score, which spends half of its time ripping off the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius”. I’d suggest that this was intentional, given that that track leads into “Eye in the Sky” — which we’re told “can read your mind” — but I’m afraid that would be giving far too much credit for cleverness.

So why bang on X-Men for these shortcomings? because it pretends it’s more than it is. Thor, for example, knew it was pure corny fun and embraced it. But X-Men movies take themselves deadly seriously, despite the fact that they universally bottom out on the argument between separatism and cooperation between mutant and human, and it’s never really in question which one is supposed to be the right answer. After making the same movie four times now you’d think they’d get it right on the fifth and be done with it, but X-Men Origins: Deadpool is already on its way.

Worth It: not really.

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