X-Men: First Class (2011)

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Time for me to get contrarian — to be the guy who insists that the fan-servicey Star Trek IV is actually not as good as the much less popular Star Trek III was. Almost everyone agrees that the X-Men series turned lame when Brett Ratner did #3, and then turned good again when Bryan Singer came back and helped put this one together. I just can’t go along with that.

Worse, I can’t even understand why so many people feel that way. Normally, in most cases where I have a contrary view, I understand why others see it differently. I totally get why people adored Superman II and Tim Burton’s Batman, and why they think Spawn, Steel, and The Spirit were awful. And I get why they dig First Class. But why the hate for The Last Stand? It’s intelligent, grown-up, full of story and character, and it has huge action scenes that aren’t confusing or carsick, in which both sides have vivid and sympathetic personalities. Is it just the Dark Phoenix part? That isn’t good, but it’s a pretty small proportion of the story. Last Stand is mostly a solid movie. This is also a pretty solid movie, but it has one large aggravating flaw: the simple fact that it’s a prequel.

So yeah, here we go with the Tiny Toons version of the X-Men. The grownups in the mainline X-Men films get to go through their awkward youth. You get to see Charles Xavier with hair, chatting up birds in pubs in swinging London, just as you always wished you could. Hank McCoy as a pimply nerd, except they never show a pimple in this. Mystique as a child (she’s older than she looks). And a bunch of teenagers who grow up to be nobody you’ve ever heard of.

The one backstory that’s really worth spending time on is Magneto’s, and his performance by Michael Fassbender is the best in the film. (The original plan was to make X-Men Origins: Magneto but they dropped the idea of an “Origins” series after the first one was a boxoffice dud, and broadened the story.)

Everyone needs a hobby, and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr’s is Nazi-hunting. But the main guy he’s after is a powerful mutant (whose origins remain a complete mystery) with hench-supervillains of his own, so Erik has to join a team with Charles and company. This team discovers that the bad guy wants to start World War Three, in order to tip the balance of mutants over humans.

The plan? It turns out he was behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. Real-life cold warriors would never have been so rash as to stick missiles in Turkey and Cuba: only mutant machinations could explain that. (Groan.) And the X-Men end up working with the CIA because in this version, geneticist Moira MacTaggert was previously (sigh) a badass CIA agent.

And that’s why prequels suck. You know how the Cuban Missile Crisis turned out. What’s worse, you know that many things shown onscreen here did not happen! To postulate a hidden history in this sort of event puts you squarely in the camp of cheeseball conspiracy theories. We’re getting into the neighborhood of the kind of stuff that makes movies of the National Treasure stripe (and for that matter, Iron Man 2) impossible to take seriously. And of course, you know how the various X-characters turn out, and that the unknown youngsters are unlikely to amount to anything.

For some reason, young Charles is usually incapable of doing telepathy without sticking a finger against his temple like some kind of carny fortune teller.

How is the evocation of sixties-ness? I’d heard good things about it, but wasn’t impressed. Not very immersive. Part of it may be due to budget: this was significantly cheaper than The Last Stand (using an unknown cast definitely helps there), and a lot of the money they did have went for the big naval showdown at the Cuban blockade line. (In which they show all the ships crowded much too close together, a la Star Trek.) And the fashions were as often comic-booky as sixties-y. They do work in some sixties movie tropes — nods to Dr. Strangelove and James Bond and the like — but that’s no substitute.

Some parts are pretty well done. The various young mutants have a nice variety of engaging personalities, and they each get cool stuff to do. The baddie (Kevin Bacon!) and his crew are the fun kind of evil. The final big showdown is suitably epic as it sets the two mutant leaders on their differing courses.

So this movie is certainly okay, but for me it just isn’t a winner. Will this new cast be the basis of a whole new series of adventures set in the past? They’re going to try it at least once, but I don’t think this will sustain very many revisits.