'X-Men: First Class': Flawed Fun
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
To tell the truth, there's plenty to find fault with in this reboot of the Marvel superhero franchise. "X-Men: First Class" takes us back to the 1940s and 1960s to tell us just how archenemy mutants Magneto and Professor X and their respective minions got that way and saved the world and stuff. That whole the-future-Magneto-as-almost-Holocaust-victim thing always rubbed me the wrong way, and here it's not only replayed but expanded upon. There's the wobbliness of some of the film's retro stylings: Was "groovy" really all that commonly used in 1962, and at Oxford yet? There are further bald and pat winks at social relevance with mutants used as allegorical figures; on-the-nose references to slavery and "don't ask, don't tell," and so on. And more, and more. One could go on.
But that would miss the point as far as this reviewer's own immediate experience of the film is concerned. The fact is I didn't have a bad time at "X-Men: First Class." That has a little to do with the fact that some of the retro stylings aren't that wobbly, and that production designer Chris Seagers does the great Ken Adam proud, concocting war rooms and submarine interiors and cockpits and hangars that evoke the best work of Ken Adam (He of course designed not just all the Bond films of the '60s, but also "Dr. Strangelove," which is not inadvertently evoked in this film's rewriting of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a battle between good and evil mutants.). Indeed, at its best -- which, admittedly, is not all that frequently -- the film plays a little bit like an early Bond film, albeit one filtered through the Marvel Comics ethos, which among other things means it's more earnest and character-driven than the early Bond films. Ugh.
This means lots of meaningful conversations between future Professor X Charles Xavier and future Magneto Erik about mutants' place in human society, about the space between rage and serenity, and about whether the Nazi doctor who tormented and trained Erik -- the creator of a monster who still lives and whose own mutant power allows him to remain eternally young, among other things -- deserves death via Erik's steel-bending powers or a different form of justice. Yeah, sure, all right. Fortunately, X and Magneto are portrayed here by two very engaging performers, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and they do their damnedest to sell the on-the-nose dialogue and perspectives concocted by screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn. Unfortunately, the chief villain, former Nazi and eternally youthful energy-sucking mutant Sebastian Shaw, is played by an ostentatiously smirky Kevin Bacon, whose presence kicks the movie out of James Bond territory and into Austin Powers land pretty much every time he turns up.
The other supporting players, by contrast, are pretty colorless, even ostensible fan-boy eye candy such as January Jones as icy-foxy Bad Mutant, Zoe Kravitz as spicy-foxy-I-used-to-work-at-a-'60s-strip-club On the Fence Mutant, and Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as blue-and-scaly, Fans-of-the-Other-Films-Know-How-This-Is-Going-to-Turn-Out-Mutant. And then there are the semi-cameos from Oliver Platt and some other luminaries whose naming might constitute a spoiler of some sort. And some of the special effects are a little too obviously CGI-ish, despite the presence of veteran effects maestro John Dykstra overseeing said wizardry.
Still, director Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") does keep the pace snappy. The obligatory montage showing the "training" of the not particularly distinguished teen mutant crew has a little more élan than such exercises normally do. Also, individual episodes, such as the infiltration of a degenerate Vegas work-and-play session of the rich and powerful and corrupt by lingerie-clad CIA agent Rose Byrne, a bit that's ever so slightly redolent of a James Ellroy anecdote, play with a soupcon of crackle that's entirely missing from "Thor," to name another recent and entirely less engaging Marvel movie. Could just be I was inordinately grateful to see a superhero movie that acknowledges that the sex act exists. These days at the movies, one tends to give a lot of thanks for small favors.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.