For those keeping count, X-Men: First Class is the fifth film in the X-Men series and, chronologically, the first. It opens with the same sequence of a young Erik Lensherr in a Nazi concentration camp, wrenched from his parents and twisting the metal gates, as in the original X-Men film, but expands on the events immediately following: Erik is brought before Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who tries to harness Erik’s gift by promptly shooting his mother. Across the world, a young Charles Xavier, possessing the gift of mind-reading, catches the shapeshifter Mystique breaking into his family mansion.
Fast-forward to 20-some years later, it’s 1962 and Charles (now played by James McAvoy) is a prominent biologist at Oxford whose work focuses on genetic mutation; Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is working as a waitress and posing as Xavier’s sister; Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down the Nazi scientists who killed his family; and Shaw is now leading a terrorist organization known as the Hellfire Club, aided by his henchmen Emma Frost (January Jones), who also has the power to read minds as well as morph into a sexy diamond, and the demonic-looking Azazel (Jason Flyming), who can teleport as well as impale victims on his pointy tail; finally, there’s Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a CIA agent who’s hunting down Shaw.
MacTaggert’s investigation uncovers Shaw and his merry band of mutants, which leads her to team up with Xavier and take the villains on aboard Shaw’s yacht, right in step with Lensherr. Shaw escapes, and MacTaggert, Xavier, and Lensherr head back to the CIA, where the three set up a mutant task force (the gathering of which is one of the movie’s best scenes) to save the world.
That’s just the beginning, and if the premise seems labyrinthine, it gets even more complicated as the heroes and villains venture to and from nearly every continent and what seems like every country across the globe. Similarly, movie fans will notice more than a few references to films of the decade, most notably Dr. Strangelove with its War Room and Merkin-Muffley-looking general (to say nothing of Colonel Hendry’s uncanny resemblance to Red Buttons). But the real inspiration is Connery-era Bond (is it a coincidence that the film is set in 1962, the year Dr. No, the first Bond film, was released?). And is it ever. While Professor X would rather chug a beer than sip martinis, First Class is replete with all the sexy women, fast cars, exotic locales goofy gadgetry, and outrageous henchmen as anything Terence Young or Lewis Gilbert could have dreamed up.
Setting itself in the ‘60s and taking the civil rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War as major plot points in addition to staying true to the future history of the preceding movies is no small task, but director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) avoids the dull seriousness of such Marvel properties as Iron Man 2 and Thor and, though keeping a straight face, nevertheless charms with its absurdities. Those who lived through the tumultuous events depicted may find the film’s handling of them in poor taste, but, again, First Class uses them as convenient backdrops rather than platforms for half-hearted dwelling. Similarly, the X-men themselves might as well be Q Division’s latest developments, since they’re basically trinkets that can be adapted to suit the situation.
Hardcore fans of the original trilogy (I’m sure First Class is laying the groundwork for future installments) will enjoy the cameos and clever ways the film falls into place with the later backstory as well as showcases some of the comics’ lesser-known characters, and average moviegoers will not have to worry about coming into the franchise cold.
The only major flaw is the film’s love of its own special effects, which it never refuses an opportunity to flaunt. However, in the age of CGI, there’s no sense of awe or wonder. This may be necessary since the X-Men’s powers are substitutes for personalities, but we get the point after the fifth classmate starts belching flames. Nevertheless, X-Men: First Class is decent-enough fun, not a Goldfinger, more of a “Professor” No.