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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class

James McAvoy stars in Marvel comic origin story

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In 1944, a Jewish boy separated from his parents at a Nazi death camp in Poland reaches with hateful eyes toward the metal gate shutting behind them. The gate bends and comes off the hinges. Meanwhile, at a baronial mansion in upstate New York, a lad with powers of telepathy sees through the woman masquerading as his mother and finds she's really a shape-shifting mutant whose natural complexion is blue. He embraces her in love. Hate and love are at war in X-Men: First Class, and both sides of the argument get a fair hearing in the latest film adaptation of the Marvel comic book series.

X-Men: First Class
is the origin story for the franchise. The screenplay, co-written by director Matthew Vaughn, sets up the contrasting life stories of the opposing protagonists, the Holocaust survivor who became known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the child of privilege, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Fast-forward to 1962: Magneto is a grim young man obsessed with killing the Dr. Mengele-like Nazi who murdered his mother and fostered his mutant powers in a project to supplant the current stage of humanity with a master race; Xavier is a foppish graduate student at Oxford who has somehow acquired a posh English accent. The mutant he discovered in 1944, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), goes about as his go-go-booted foster sister and best friend. Xavier enjoys his life and entertains no quarrel with any party. Magneto nurtures a deadly grudge, not only against his mother's murderer but humanity in general, believing them capable of exterminating the mutants upon learning of their existence.

Bringing Magneto and Xavier together, and ultimately ripping them apart, is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the Nazi doctor who somehow transformed himself into a James Bond villain with superpowers and an entourage of dangerous minions. Operating from one luxurious lair to the next, including a customized submarine, Shaw is plotting to destroy humanity by triggering nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Magneto and Xavier identify and enlist a crew of other Marvel mutants, including Beast and Banshee, to thwart his scheme. They also locate Wolverine, but he tells them to bugger off.

At the heart of a screenplay with too many authors is a story credited to Bryan Singer (director of the first and best X-Men movie) and screenwriter Sheldon Turner. One can glimpse a stronger concept partially submerged under too many rewrites catering to the multiplex crowd, even if it meant offending expectations among the core audience familiar with the X-Men comics. The film's early scenes, with their resemblance to Schindler's List and The Tin Drum, give way to kinetic hokum and overheated melodrama. Although many of the backdrops are computer generated, First Class often creates visually polished, attractive high-style settings—even if a few anachronisms creep in. But then, the story's sophisticated geopolitical setup (the Soviets really did build missile bases in Cuba in retaliation for American missiles in Turkey) is squandered in the end by too many glaring inaccuracies. First Class looks like a movie that went through the Hollywood mill on its way from the original idea to the big screen.

Good acting in the lead roles partially salvages the production, especially the death-ray determination of Magneto, the Zen master calm and Sherlock Holmes precision of Xavier and the dastardly mania of Shaw. The patchiness of the script can't entirely eclipse the story's ethical implications about the dangers of being different in the midst of conformity (Raven: "Should we have to hide?") and of becoming your enemy by succumbing to hatred (Magneto: "Never forget"). X-Men: First Class contains allegories of a great many enduring issues, yet Xavier's job of appealing to the better angels of our nature gets a little lost amid the bonkers but entirely predictable plot twists and special effects.