Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)
WARNING: CAN THERE BE SPOILERS IN A PREQUEL?
There’s a problem inherent in blockbuster prequels that “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t solve.
We all carry within us an assumption of human progress, the idea that, in endeavors such as athletics and technology, each subsequent generation eclipses the previous one. The 1855 record for the mile, for example, was 4: 28 by Charles Westhall of Britain. By 1914, it was 4:14 by the U.S.’s John Paul Jones. Britain’s Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954 with a time of 3:59.4, and the current record-holder is Hicham El Geurrouj of Morocco: 3:43.13. Progress.
In a prequel then, particularly a prequel about, oh, mutants developing powers, one would assume there would be regress. We’re at an earlier stage. Things are less developed. But the audience, and thus the marketplace, demands that each subsequent film, regardless of its chronological place in the storyline, contain ever more spectacular stunts and effects. So in the first “X-Men,” Magneto can, wow, flip over cop cars and turn dozens of rifles and guns against their users. Here? Forty years earlier? As he’s just learning his powers? He can lift submarines out of the water and turn hundreds of missiles against their users. It makes his cop-car trick look like paring fingernails. (See also: lightsabre battles between “A New Hope” and “Phantom Menace.”)
“First Class” begins in the same place—the exact same place—that “X-Men” began: Poland, 1944, young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) and his parents and the buckling metal concentration-camp gate. It was a great open 11 years ago but it left a question: “Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid with amazing powers?” Here we get our answer.
A silhouetted man in a window, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), watches and brings Erik before him. He speaks perfect German but he’s no Nazi. In fact he mocks the Aryan ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes because he knows there’s something better, and he knows Erik is it. But how to get Erik to access his powers as he did with the gate? Stress? Fear? Anger? He asks him to move a coin but Erik can’t. So he brings Erik’s mother before him and tells him to move the coin or he shoots the mother. He still can’t. So Erik’s mother is shot and killed before his eyes. That does it. Erik’s powers, Magneto’s powers, are unleashed: on the room, on the Nazi guards, on everything and everyone but Shaw, the man who killed his mother. We later find out that Shaw himself is a mutant, one who can absorb someone else’s energy, but in this particular scene we get no indication that he’s in fact doing this. Instead it looks like Shaw is walking through a holocaust unscathed. It looks like Erik doesn’t know what he’s doing.
So the movie answers one question (“Didn’t the Nazis do anything with this kid?”) only to raise another. The next time we see Erik it’s 1962, Geneva. He’s a man now (and what a man: Michael Fassbender), and, with Nazi coin in hand, he decides to search for Shaw and kill him.
Really? It took him 18 years to figure this out?
Meanwhile, Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) is hanging in Oxford pubs and using mental telepathy to attempt to pick up “groovy” girls despite the presence of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he’d first found starving in his parents’ house, and who apparently has a crush on him. At one point, when he objects to her objections, she tells him he has no friends but her. Again: really? He seems so likeable. And how did he know “groovy” would be such a hip word three years later? Can he also see into the future? Is that why his hair is longish before the Beatles even recorded “Love Me Do”?
I know. It’s a blockbuster. It’s a superhero film. But I can’t leave this aspect alone.
1962 is not 1964 is not 1967 is not 1974 is not today, but the movie gloms them all together and we wind up with a cultural and historical hodgepodge. Shaw in 1962 looks like a 1974 swinger. Banshee has a moptop. Miniskirts are already popular. London is swinging even though it didn’t begin to swing until, what, 1965? The CIA is known to all when, culturally, the acronym hadn’t quite stuck yet. (Cf., “Charade” (1963): “Mrs. Lampert, do you know what the CIA is?” “I don’t suppose it’s an airline, is it?”)
Should we talk race? In 1962, the real 1962, Pres. Kennedy had to send in the National Guard just to let James Meredith go to school, but here Armando Munez/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) shows up with superpowers and no one blinks. Apparently all mutants, even the bad ones, are colorblind. Apparently the CIA contains no racists. And, really, what’s Munez doing driving a cab in New York? Shouldn’t he be integrating Woolworth counters or marching in Albany, Ga.? He’s got superpowers! How can he just stand on the sidelines? I mean, does he identify himself as mutant first and black (or Negro) second? How about a dialogue where we talk some of this shit up? Instead: silence. For a long time the X-Men saga has been seen as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, with Professor X, in the Dr. King role, counseling integration, and Magneto, a la Malcolm X, suggesting war “by any means necessary.” Dudes: You’re in 1962. Give us the origin of the metaphor. Show Xavier watching King. Give us Magneto watching Malcolm X. Hell, have the two of them watching that famous MLK/Malcolm X debate from the period. Instead they play chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Deep.
Should we talk Cuban Missile Crisis? The X-Men, Xavier and Magneto united, spend the movie chasing after Shaw and his band of baddies, who are trying to start World War III by 1) suggesting that Americans put missiles in Turkey, and 2) suggesting that Soviets put missiles in Cuba. Problem? The U.S. put missiles in Turkey in ’61, not ’62, and the Soviets already had missiles in Cuba by the time we confronted them; they weren’t in the process of bringing them to Cuba, as the movie suggests. This second historical inaccuracy seems particularly odd to me. Why fudge the history? Because a U.S. Navy blockade of the island would be too tough to explain? Kennedy choosing the middle ground between war and diplomacy? Where’s William Devane and Marty Sheen when you need them?
Anyway, that’s the story. Shaw wants to start World War III so mutants can take over in the rubble, Xavier is trying to stop him, Erik is intent on revenge, and, in a late, good scene, he gets it, with the old Nazi-coin-through-the-skull trick. The Bad Guy is dead (Shaw), long live the Bad Guy (Magneto). The U.S. and U.S.S.R., seeing the mutants isolated and battling on an island, decide to wipe them all out while they can, which is when we get the turning-around-the-missiles trick. In the ensuing battle, Charles is shot and paralyzed, Raven/Mystique goes over to Magneto’s side, Magneto gets the helmet. The prequel ends in a place that can conceivably lead to the first “modern day” scenes in “X-Men.” Except, of course, we’re still 40 years away. What was Magneto doing all this time? Building his idiot contraption to turn humans into mutants?
I do applaud the casting of the principles. McAvoy brings charm to the Xavier role, while Fassbender is perfect as an angry young Magneto. (Comparing his humorless take to Sir Ian McKellen’s, I thought of the old Elvis Costello lyric: “I used to be disgusted/Now I try to be amused.”) I liked Nicholas Hoult as a young Hank McCoy, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Lucas Till as Havok. Kevin Bacon looks like he’s having the time of his life chewing the scenery as Shaw.
On the other hand: Jennifer Lawrence hardly seems a young Rebecca Romijn; and while January Jones is as pretty as they come, and she does have a frosty demeanor that would suit a character like Emma Frost, the timbre of her voice destroys all illusions that she’s superpowerful rather than simply a semi-whiny Midwest girl. Sorry, JJ.
“First Class” isn’t bad but it’s second class and leads nowhere. I don’t quite see the point of it.