Silver Screen: X-Men: First Class ***
The X-Men movies line up pretty neatly into two camps: With Bryan Singer, and without Bryan Singer. The talented writer and director helmed the first two installments of the series, the first one being passably good and the second remaining one of the best comic-book-inspired movies of all time. Singer is deft with big action setpieces and special effects, but even his blockbuster films are rooted in character development rather than driven solely by spectacle. He takes this sort of thing just seriously enough, making popcorn flicks that aren't entirely frivolous but that generally maintain a sense of excitement.
Singer took his Superman reboot a little too seriously, making a mostly dour and joyless superhero anti-romp that's already well on its way to becoming a Jeopardy! question, so quickly was it forgotten. It was the one big misfire of his career, and while he was off making it, the producers of the X-Men franchise forged ahead without him. The result was the cheap, thrown-together X:III and the even more shoddy Wolverine solo piece, both of which were pretty much the embodiment of everything bad about the ubiquitous superhero franchise.
Though Matthew Vaughn directs X-Men: First Class, Singer is back as a writer and producer, and his presence is obvious. For all its flaws, First Class is at least a real movie with an arc, satisfyingly self-contained yet hinting at a broader universe, as opposed to another franchise cash-in.
X-Men: First Class isn't exactly a reboot, but rather a realignment. Singer, working with a small squadron of writers, kicks the timeline back to 1962, when mutants are still an unorganized, underground phenomenon. Young, swinging psychic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is on the hunt for more of his own kind, but with no real organizing principle. He's an optimist, confident the United States government will welcome him and his fellow empowered superpeople so long as they make their good intentions known.
His new friend Erik (Michael Fassbender) isn't so sure. The orphaned Holocaust survivor was tormented and tested in the concentration camps at the hands of Nazi butcher Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), and it colors everything he sees. Endowed with the ability to manipulate metal, Erik plans to use his superpowers to take revenge on escaped Nazi war criminals. With the help of his secret-agent girlfriend Moira (Rose Byrne), Charles takes in Erik along with a group of young mutants that includes shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone), the winged Angel (Zoë Kravitz), and the beastly Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). They pledge to assist the government in its ongoing battle against the Soviets, but little do they know the villainous Shaw is working as a double agent within the American government to use the Cold War as a ploy to stage a mutant takeover of the world.
It's admirably weird that Singer and director Vaughn structure their film around the burgeoning Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical event about which most of the movie's young target demographic likely knows little. It gives First Class a little extra resonance, but also makes it seem a little goofy as it tries to both explain and explain away mutant influence on the ordeal. (Perhaps in the sequel, Wolverine will help leak the Pentagon Papers?)
In fact, the 1960s motif remains awkward throughout the film, which seems pretty modern with the exception of a few throwaway references, the lingerie worn by Byrne and icy villain Emma Frost (Mad Men's January Jones, who is pretty awful), and Kevin Bacon's suits. Bacon is fun as the movie's villain, but, with his retro getup, mutton chops, and pretty unmenacing sneer, he's less "world domination" evil than "bang your mom at a key party" evil.
The ensemble here is pretty weak overall, with most of the pre-X-Men mutants (especially Banshee, Havoc, and the woeful token black guy, Darwin) fourth-string scrubs positioned more as placeholders than superheroes. A mostly uninspiring crew of actors (save for Byrne and the lovely and talented Lawrence) fill their positions as perfunctorily as they're written. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Erik, the once and future Magneto, and Xavier, and that element of the film works nicely.
What's most interesting about X-Men: First Class is that it positions its ostensible hero as far less sympathetic than its burgeoning villain. Xavier is a spoiled rich kid who is smart but made naï ve by his comfortable home life, whereas Erik's skepticism is utterly warranted. Although the Holocaust elements are perhaps a little tasteless-- it's an awfully heavy historical event to use as a starting point for guys shooting laser beams at each other-- it provides Erik with understandable motivation to distrust military and governmental organizations, not to mention that it radicalizes him. The conflict between Xavier and Erik is in many ways a riff on the difference of opinion between the nonviolent protest of Martin Luther King and the whatever-it-takes mentality of Malcolm X, and while X-Men: First Class ultimately comes down on the side of the do-gooder heroes, the movie makes a subversively good case for the other side.