Clumsy, hollow prequel makes for summer’s first train wreck.
Neither a fresh reimagining of the stagnant X-Men film franchise or a back to basics return to what made Bryan Singer’s first two efforts in the series often (if never completely) enthralling, director Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class struggles to find its narrative footing and then collapses beneath a Frankenstein script and leaden, arrythmic pacing. Squandering an intriguing retro setting and a premise that ought to write itself on derivative and pained action sequences and mawkish dramatics, the film amounts to a long, tired rehash of a lot of hoary marketing gimmicks. And amid a widely divergent field of performances it includes an aggressively terrible performance by a veteran character actor who ought to know better.
The film starts with a scene lifted verbatim from Singer’s vastly superior X2, detailing Erik Lensherr’s - the boy who will grow up to become Magneto – struggles in a Polish concentration camp during World War II. This film continues his ordeal under scientist/cackling maniac Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), whose sadistic methods kickstart the young mutant’s abilities. Meanwhile in England, a young Charles Xavier befriends homeless, shape-shifting waif Raven, promising her a safe haven despite her otherwordly appearance.
Jump ahead to the early 1960s, when Shaw is under investigation by the CIA for interfering with U.S. military operations. Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) infiltrates his casino/brothel and witnesses the mutant powers of several of his henchmen, but is dismissed by stodgy superiors who use her findings as evidence women shouldn’t be operatives. Instead, she contacts Oxford University grad Xavier for insight into mutations. Though the young geneticist’s earnest briefing is likewise met with skepticism, he and Raven are recruited by an agency scientist (Oliver Platt) to head up a division of mutant spies.
An aborted attempt to catch Shaw brings Xavier into contact with Lensherr, who’s spent his adult life stalking his former tormentor around the world in search of vengeance. Lensherr reluctantly joins the fledgling group, accompanying Xavier on a recruitment drive around the country. The script uses a familiar structure for this, one for which TV Tropes.org has a pretty ironic name, and it allows for a surprise cameo given extra spice by the precise use of an f-bomb.
The new recruits, who include a cab driver named Darwin (Edi Gathegi) who can adapt instantly for any situation and a stripper with dragonfly wings (Zoe Kravitz), continue their training until Shaw orders an attack on their compound. The resulting combat under Vaughn’s orchestration becomes both belabored and mean-spiririted, with repeated and derivative violence that fails to establish the bad guy’s menace so much as their one-dimensionality. One of Xavier’s team is murdered, and another defects, in efforts the script ostensibly intends to bring context to the Xavier-Magneto struggles of the later films. In fact it returns to that ambition time and again (at 132 minutes long, it’s got plenty of time) but seldom completely pulls it off.
Because Xavier, Lensherr, and Raven (played in adulthood by Jennifer Lawrence) are the only fully developed characters the script allows, the rest of the “first class” are practically cyphers, distinguishable solely by their powers or, more cynically, their boy band-esque personality types: the bad boy (Lucas Till), the sensitive one (Caleb Landry Jones) the geeky one (Nicholas Holt). Their training, free of the government’s meddling – us kids can do it for ourselves! – goes off with little impediment or setback, save the semi-humorous kind typical of such sequences. The evil mutants working for Shaw – teleporting Darth Maul knockoff Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Euro-chic tornado thrower Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) – are similarly underdeveloped.
Shaw’s master plan sets the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Xavier, Lensherr and the gang scramble to stop. The ensuing set piece makes for the film’s best sequence, allowing all the mutants to finally let loose with their powers. Though too much of the sequence details the U.S. and soviet navies looking on in fear and hostility, until its conclusion the battle is well-orchestrated and even suspenseful, a welcome relief after the previous plodding 90 or so minutes. Having said that, plot holes and continuity errors trouble its narrative coherence all the while.
When the battle’s over and the character interaction resumes, the film again finds itself in trouble. The reasons for Xavier’s confinement to a wheelchair are revealed with the grace of a sledgehammer, and with a bathos that defies common sense. Lensherr’s character arc ultimately lands him on the side of the devils, as we knew it would, and in joining him Raven becomes the terrorist Mystique (Rebecca Romihn puts in a cameo as her grown up self, too.) The film can’t resist indulging in multiple denouement, letting Xavier and Lensherr both come to their epiphanies about their identities.
Fassbender is compelling and charming as the haunted Lensherr, and Lawrence is affecting as the shape-changer with no sense of herself. The worst turn, ironically, belongs to the film’s most seasoned veteran. Bacon is hammy and nonchalant playing a villain who ought to be halfway between Dr. No and Dr. Mengele, and his nonchalance works against the film’s sum dramatic weight. In terms of performance his idea of evil apparently runs more to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor than Heath Ledger’s Joker, in a way that sometimes patronizing; at other times the apathy seems to waft off him. Another weak turn comes from January Jones, playing Shaw’s operative/concubine Emma Frost. Perhaps because of the 60′s setting she recycles her Betty Draper iciness, but only to diminishing returns.
The film’s screenplay carries no less than six writing credits, including Singer and Vaughn both, and the confusion typical of too many cooks in the storytelling kitchen create persistent, debilitating troubles that the final film product never takes time to figure out. At the risk of second-guessing, it’s sometimes tempting to try to spot the segments that must have come from the aborted Magneto-only prequel rumored several years ago, and then to call out the parts that must have accumulated with successive treatments – the toyetic Azazel, the tween-friendly Xavier recruits, the cursory understanding of Cold War geopolitics. All in the name of money, of course, and served up with enough bombast that maybe you won’t notice. X-Men: First Class is a film that doesn’t expect very much from itself. It hopes you won’t either.
- Michael Kabel