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X-Men: First Class

Dir: Matthew Vaughn

Rating: 2.9/5.0

20th Century Fox

132 Minutes

No word makes my skin crawl more than “reboot.” It’s as if some suit-and-tied movie exec gets up in front of the audience and begins waving his arms about: “Just forget everything you’ve seen up to now,” he shouts. “Forget that Tobey Maguire played Peter Parker and forget that Batman killed the Joker. Strike it from the record.” The audience stirs in discomfort and distress. “We’re rebooting this bitch and everything that came before never really happened,” he continues, one hand fondling the money he got for the films leading up to this impending “reboot.”

So now we’re asked to forget everything again. It’s been 11 years since the first X-Men film debuted, and since then we’ve seen two sequels and one Wolverine spin-off. This time, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) has been handed the reins of the franchise and has delivered something that is not exactly a prequel, definitely not a sequel and kinda sorta a reboot. Seeing Vaughn’s name attached to X-Men: First Class is what initially attracted me, as his balls-out bravado helped make Kick-Ass one of the best comic adaptations in a long time. Unfortunately, Vaughn plays it safe with X-Men: First Class, eschewing the frenetic pacing of Kick-Ass for a more traditional and safe blockbuster format that can include comics fans of all ages. Gone is the intensity and absolute insanity that filled his tale of a super hero with no actual powers. Instead, we get the story of a Holocaust survivor out to avenge the murder of his parents.

The globe-trotting and time-spanning film begins in Poland in the 1940s as young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) and family are ripped apart by the Nazis. Vaughn makes sure we know Erik is in a concentration camp (in case we don’t understand that people in striped pajamas in 1940s Poland are not) by zooming in on the numbered tattoo on his wrist. But as his parents are torn away from him, Erik does the most extraordinary thing. In his anguish, he moves the gates of the camp as if he’s a human magnet, attracting the attention of the evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, in upstate New York, the young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) catches a blue mutant girl stealing food from his house. Flash forward 20 years and Xavier (James McAvoy) has just graduated from Oxford. He is enlisted by US Agent Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to stop Shaw and his band of evil mutants from starting World War III. Xavier enlists the help of other fledgling mutants, including Beast, Havok and Banshee to join him and Mystique (Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence) to do battle against Shaw.

So where does Magneto (Michael Fassbender), one of the most popular villains in the X-Men universe, fit in? As Xavier builds up his mutant brigade, Magneto tentatively joins up, but keeps his own motivations mysterious. But if you are even a fair-weather fan of the comics you know the numerous questions which need to be answered by the end of the film will be: why is Magneto a good guy? Why is Mystique a good guy? How come Professor X can still walk? Why isn’t the Beast all blue and hairy? Regardless of the pay-off, these lingering plot points take away from any sense of surprise as the movie unrolls.

Worst of all, the movie doesn’t even look that great for all the money that went into it. The idea of Magneto using his powers to raise a submarine out of the ocean may sound good on paper, but in execution it looks worse than a third-rate video game. Even the smaller effects look terrible. Just check out Emma Frost’s (a dead-eyed January Jones who sucks the air out of each scene) goofy-looking mutation.

So why see X-Men: First Class? Fassbender is steely as the revenge-driven Magneto, Kevin Bacon has his best role in years as the dastardly Sebastian Shaw and some of the scenes involving the younger mutants learning their powers are inspired. Yet, I would much rather see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart go head-to-head, despite the fact that Fassbender is a star on the rise. But unlike moribund Marvel films such as Daredevil and The Fantastic Four, the X-Men series still has life in it. Hopefully, Vaughn will recapture some of the life force that made Kick-Ass so punchy in the evitable X-Men sequel…unless we have another reboot coming down the line.

by David Harris

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