Sometimes comic book movies don’t take the hint. Superman should have stopped after two. The original Batman movies should have stopped after one. The Fantastic Four should have stopped the minute Jessica Alba was cast. But leave it to X-Men to finally get it right after 5 tries.
Not that the first four movies were bad. X-Men 1 and 2 are actually decent. Wolverine is campy, but still fun. X-Men 3 barely survives Kelsey Grammer in a fuzzy blue monkey suit. But X-Men: First Class is in a, uh, category of its own.
There are a few reasons why it works so well. Good action, fun characters, a couple awesome cameos. But I think the biggest reason is that it’s set in the 60s. No Austin Powers here, though January Jones as Emma Frost does a pretty great impression of a Fem-bot. This is Cold War all the way. This can lead to some anachronistic moments. After leaving their cutting edge genetics lab on a futuristic hover jet, the X-Men are forced to watch JFK on a grainy black-and-white TV.
Still, it’s awesome to have a real president overseeing these things for once. Using the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop, the filmmakers recast a chess match between superpowers as a chess match between super powers. The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. may have their differences, but pretty much everyone agrees that Kevin Bacon is pure evil.
Bacon plays the mutant villain Sebastian Shaw, whose main super power is that he can link himself to any actor in six movies or less. He can also absorb energy. This makes him pretty much unstoppable, except for one weak point, which has nothing to do with his bushy sideburns (Kevin Bacon can rock smarmy facial hair like nobody’s business). It’s up to Magneto and Professor X to find his Achilles Heel and exploit it.
Yes, Magneto and Professor X are a team in this movie, and while it doesn’t exactly culminate with a lightsaber battle on Mustafar, you know it can’t end well. This is a far more violent movie then we’re used to from X-Men. Comic book movies tend to involve lots of action, but rarely do you grasp the human damage. X-Men: First Class isn’t gory, but it does have some brutal murders. Most of them involve Magneto, whose ability to rip fillings from other people’s teeth and thrust knives into their chests from across the room makes him a little unsettling. Another mutant can grab hold of average people and teleport them a mile into the sky. Then he drops them. This is a far cry from the horrors of Superman II, where the biggest danger was having your bus tip over.
There’s a dark side even to the good guys, and many of the mutants are not above using their sexuality as a manipulation tactic. Angel makes a living as an exotic dancer. Emma Frost telepathically simulates a make-out session. Even the non-mutant CIA officer strips down to her underwear to sneak into a nightclub. Give Mystique some credit. Whereas everyone just assumed in the first movie that Rebecca Romijn would give her performance sans clothes, Jennifer Lawrence (as the younger version) at least feels uncomfortable walking around in full blue nakedness. Let’s face it, when even Professor X is dropping the same pick-up line on every hottie at the bar, you’ve definitely crossed into new X-Men territory.
If the movie falters anywhere, it’s in bringing back that ridiculous blue gorilla suit. Nicholas Hoult’s character undergoes a transformation from a guy with big feet to The Beast, later (earlier) played by Kelsey Grammer. While some comic book costumes look good on screen, this one is never gonna work. He looks like a werewolf smurf, and might better off chasing Gargamel’s cat through a magical candy forest. A better solution would have been to show the beginnings of Beast’s transformation, then to have him flee the movie out of shame, which would have been entirely within character.
All told, X-Men: First Class has catapulted itself to the upper echelon of comic book movies, into the heady space occupied by Dark Knight and Iron Man. It does make one wonder if they will quit while they’re ahead. I’d hate to see this turn into X-Men: Saved by the Bell.