X-Men: First Class

Directed By: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon

"I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity."
-Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)

Aside from Hugh Jackman's solo outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there's always been a pervasive theme in the X-Men movies comparing the fight for mutant rights to the Civil Rights Movement.  In my review of the original X-Men, I've spoken at length about how Professor X and Magneto represent MLK and Malcolm X respectively.  With X-Men: First Class being set in the 60s, the franchise's focus on this symbolism has never been clearer.  The quote above refers to Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) helping his longtime friend Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) to fully realize his power.  However, it also serves as a subtle reminder of the film's major juxtaposition of the raging militant Magneto and the serene telepathic Professor X.

At a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, a young Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner) witnesses his parents being taken to the gas chamber.  At this tragic moment, the mutant boy loses control and starts bringing down the gates in the camp.  Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) witnesses Erik in action and wants to test the limits of the young mutant's power. Shaw gives Erik an ultimatum, to move a metal coin or watch his mother die in front of him at Shaw's hand.  Erik sadly fails to move that coin.  Elsewhere in the world, a boy named Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) meets a young shape-shifting mutant named Raven Darkholme (Morgan Lily) when she breaks into his parents’ mansion.  Xavier befriends Raven and takes her into his home.

Years later in the 1960s, an adult Lensherr is fueled by hatred in a quest to find Shaw and avenge his mother.  Xavier has just earned his doctorate in mutational genetics and still lives with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).  Lensherr and Xavier's paths cross when CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) learns what Shaw is up to these days.  Ready to wage war on mankind, Shaw intends to capitalize on tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.  To stop Shaw and his team of mutants known as the Hellfire Club from starting World War III, MacTaggert and the CIA recruit a team of their own, starting with Xavier and Lensherr.  In the midst of this chaotic situation, a life-changing friendship begins.

Mutant and Proud.  This phrase carries a lot of meaning and really highlights how closely the X-Men franchise resembles a super-powered reimagining of the Civil Rights Movement.  Arguably, this is a more potent reminder of this than even the juxtaposition of Professor X and Magneto.  This expression is reminiscent of the James Brown tune "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud" and the social significance it carried back in the 60s.  Much like the popular song from the Godfather of Soul, the saying "Mutant and Proud" is something that instills self-worth regardless of one's appearance or abilities.  It's something that instills pride in oneself regardless of what society may try to dictate.  Director Matthew Vaughn's frequent use of this saying in X-Men: First Class, a film set in the 60s, is ultimately a deft way of incorporating social and cultural history into this comics adaptation and creating a more powerful parallel to the Civil Rights Era than anything previously done in the franchise.

After the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and the generally loathed X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the franchise finds its groove again in X-Men: First Class.  Sleek and edgy, this installment from Matthew Vaughn is a thorough exploration of mutant life before the war began and before Professor X was crippled.  With a great cast under his direction, Vaughn brings the franchise back home to quality filmmaking and at the same time takes the series in a new direction creatively.  At times reminiscent of Ang Lee's skilled camera work in Hulk (though the movie isn’t terribly great) and at times more akin to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight with its dark tone and bombastic score, Vaughn's X-Men film breathes new life into the long-running film series.

The relationship between Professor X and Magneto is once again front and center in First Class.  Luckily we have just the right actors for the job. In his role as Xavier, James McAvoy is nothing short of impressive.  He brings the same compassion and understanding to the character that Patrick Stewart did in the original trilogy.  On top of this, he gives us a bit of a suave, lovable playboy.  In his role as Lensherr, Michael Fassbender takes the character in a very different direction from Ian McKellen's previous incarnation of him, and it's surprisingly refreshing.  He doesn't offer a witty, charming Magneto.  His interpretation is much darker and far more menacing.  Fassbender gives us what was really created from the horrors of that Nazi concentration camp, Frankenstein's monster.

Beyond McAvoy and Fassbender, the supporting cast members deliver solid performances.  There are two standouts I want to mention in particular.  As our primary villain Sebastian Shaw, the incomparable Kevin Bacon gives one fun, devilish performance.  In many ways, this mutant seeking to wage war on mankind is a Magneto's direct predecessor.  In this capacity, Bacon gives us a cunning, manipulative visionary on screen.  For her part as Raven Darkholme, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a complex, nuanced performance that depends greatly upon her interactions with other characters such as Professor X, Magneto, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).  It's all about her self-worth and beauty, and this is on full display whether or not her character Mystique is in her natural form.  In a conflicted, emotional performance, Lawrence delivers an exquisite creature who gives true meaning to the saying "Mutant and Proud".

X-Men: First Class is a thorough backstory with plenty of thrills.  With a plethora of well-portrayed characters, a cool 60s vibe, and a strong plot interwoven with historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, Matthew Vaughn gives us a refreshing tale in the mutant saga.  First Class gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.