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Thursday, June 9, 2011 01:34 pm

X-Men prequel good and awkward


Michael Fassbender stars as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in X-Men: First Class.

Much like its teen protagonists, X-Men: First Class straddles the line between grace and awkwardness. There are moments in which it contains some of the best scenes in the mutant series, if not the superhero genre itself. And at others, it is a laughable parody of itself as well as a myriad of films from the 1960s, not self-aware enough to be campy; it’s just plain awful. The fault lies with director Matthew Vaughn who fails to achieve a consistent tone. Thankfully the well-executed moments outweigh the bad. Buoyed by an intelligent script and solid performances, this prequel delivers enough crowd-pleasing moments for the series’ rabid fans and will engage the curious who aren’t quite aware of what all the mutant fuss is about.

Vaughn wastes little time as he rapidly gives us a thumbnail sketch of Charles Xavier’s and Erik Lensherr’s background. While the former grew up in a world of privilege, knowing early on that his ability to read minds and control others telekinetically was unique, his counterpart had his life shattered early on, seeing his parents slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps, unable to help them despite his ability to move and manipulate metals. Still, these two end up on a collision course. Fate leads them to both pursue Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a former Nazi who’s manipulating the American and Russian governments, hoping to trigger a nuclear war.

To combat this, Xavier and Lensherr set out to find other mutants like them to combat this threat. Having already discovered Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), they track down Angel, a young woman with a handy set of wings (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Jones), who can shatter glass with his voice, Darwin (Edi Gathegi) who can adapt to survive any situation and Havok (Lucas Till) who has seemingly unlimited atomic power.

Those familiar with the X-Men mythos will be pleased to see how the origins of these characters have been rendered on the screen and at times expanded upon. There’s a natural chemistry between all of these young performers and each effectively reacts with confusion and wonder at their character’s gifts, yet retain a sense of youthful exuberance that makes them appealing and sympathetic. Most of the film’s fun comes from their interaction and they provide a nice counterbalance to the rest of the movie’s more serious matters.

These occur between Xavier and Lensherr as played by James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively. They’re able to bring the right degree of gravity to their characters and their perspective. While Xavier longs to nurture others like him and hopefully present them as an ally to society, Lensherr knows they’ll be treated with scorn, derision and the possibility of annihilation once they’re outed. Issues of acceptance, both by others and themselves, are the basis for the series’ subtext and that’s never been more prevalent than it is here. Feelings of self-loathing are the millstone around most of these characters’ necks. It’s easy to draw correlations between the X-Men and any group that’s been ostracized.

The early scenes with Fassbender, when he hunts down the Nazis responsible for his parent’s deaths, are among the best. They have an early James Bond feel to them and the actor dominates the screen with his passion. The film lags whenever he’s off screen during the first hour. There’s no question he’s a star in the making. However, as good as these are moments in which Bacon is in full villain regalia, which come off as outtakes from a lost Austin Powers film, and special effects that fail to capture the wonder of some of the character’s powers, give the film an amateurish feel that nearly undermines the entire enterprise. Thankfully, a rousing climax and Fassbender’s charismatic turn save the movie, providing the series with a prequel good enough to reboot this enterprise, allowing for many, hopefully better, films to come.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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