X-Men: First Class (PG-13)
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This is the fifth movie in the "X-Men" franchise, and like its predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it's a prequel. (Wolverine himself only makes a brief, but quite amusing cameo in this film; as far as I could tell, Hugh Jackman was the only actor from the earlier movies to appear in this one, though Wikipedia mentions Robecca Romijn in a cameo, which I must have missed, unless it was a scene where I thought she was played by Jennifer Lawrence... it's hard to tell people apart under all that makeup.) One might expect that by this time, the series would have lost its steam (especially considering I found the fourth movie underwhelming, or whelming at best), but surprisingly enough, this turned out to be my favorite film in the franchise so far. It tells the story of how the superhero group the X-Men first came to be, which is something I never really knew any details of, not having read any X-Men comics. From various incarnations I've seen both in the movies and on TV, I knew a little bit, mainly that before becoming "Professor X" and "Magneto," Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) had been friends. I also knew that Erik had been in a Nazi concentration camp in his youth. But that's about all I knew; so I can't say how faithful the movie is to the comics, though I certainly think it did a good job of demonstrating how both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants could have gotten their start.
It starts out in 1944, showing us the very different circumstances of young Charles and Erik (when they were both about 12 years old). As I mentioned, Erik was in a concentration camp, where, in an effort to avoid separation from his parents (or maybe just his mother), he used his ability to telekinetically move metal. He failed, but this made him interesting to a Nazi scientist named Schmidt, who tried to get him to use his powers again later, with the threat of shooting Erik's mother if the boy didn't do so. Erik didn't think it possible, and so Schmidt killed his mother, and Erik's rage at that brought out his powers in a big way. Meanwhile, in the USA, we see Charles meet a young girl named Raven, who had broken into his parents house to steal food. (In spite of this being America, I should mention Charles is British, and he never loses his accent.) Charles is, of course, a telepath, and he's happy to meet Raven, who can shape-shift to look like anyone she wants, though her true appearance is blue and scaly. Charles invites her to stay with his family. (I don't recall ever being aware of this connection between Raven- who later takes on the name Mystique- and Xavier, but again, I don't know much, and I'm quite capable of forgetting what little I do know.)
The movie then flashes forward to 1962. The adult Erik is searching for Schmidt, so he can kill him in revenge for killing his mother. Meanwhile, Charles graduates from Oxford (so I guess they were in England, which I didn't notice because I'm not very observant, but that's why we have Wikipedia). Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is with him, and she's become like a sister to him. Back in the US, there is a pair of CIA agents on a stakeout, and one of them, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), follows an army colonel named Hendry into a club, which they thought was a front for communists or something... and she spies on him meeting with Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is a younger-looking Schmidt; we later learn he can absorb energy, which keeps him young, and also allows him to redirect the energy at will. Working for Shaw are a couple of other mutants, Emma Frost (January Jones), who is a powerful telepath, and whose body can also turn to crystal, something I don't recall ever seeing her do in other incarnations; and Azazel (a demonic-looking guy who can teleport; I don't recall ever hearing of him, but both his appearance and ability immediately made me figure he must be related to Nightcrawler, who of course hasn't been born yet in this film). Oh, and there was another guy, whose name I never heard, though Wikipedia informs me that he's called Riptide. I never heard of him I think, but anyway, he creates powerful whirlwinds. I don't think he ever talks in the movie, and in spite of being just as useful a servant as Shaw's other mutants, he seems like a pretty minor background character.
Anyway, Moira reports what she sees to her boss, but he doesn't believe her, of course. After all, it sounds totally crazy. But she decides to find herself an expert on genetic mutations, which immediately leads her to Charles... which is a bit odd, because I don't think he was at all established yet, he wasn't even a teacher. She watched him give a speech, his thesis actually, and I can't imagine how she would have heard of him beforehand. But whatever. Um, I should say that Charles Xavier is not quite the man we all know from the present day. For one thing, he's not yet crippled, and for another, he's got a full head of hair (there are a couple of jokes about his hair in the movie, for fans who know he'll eventually be bald). But while he's more of a fun-loving lad who drinks and picks up women in bars, he's also clearly very intelligent and has more than a hint of the personality we're familiar with in the future. MacTaggert brings Charles and Raven to the CIA, to prove her earlier claims, and of course the CIA is more freaked out than anything else. But one guy in the agency (Oliver Platt), who isn't named, runs a division which he feels mutants could be of use to. He doesn't actually play much of a role in the movie, though he does introduce Charles and Raven to a young man named Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a genius who also happens to be a mutant (though the CIA guy didn't know that). His mutation is large, prehensile feet. After meeting Raven, Hank hopes to use her DNA to create a formula which would make them both look normal, without altering their abilities. The two of them also seem to develop a potential romantic interest in each other. A couple other things of note are that Hank had designed a jet, which should be familiar to X-Men fans, and also he created Cerebro, a system for amplifying a telepath's power, which allowed Charles to mentally seek out other mutants.
Um, I may be getting some things out of order in my memory, I'm not sure. At some point, Charles went out with a CIA team to try to capture Shaw, who was coincidentally being attacked at the same time by Erik. Charles stops Erik, in order to save Erik's life (he would have died in his effort to kill Shaw). After that, Erik joins Charles in his recruitment of other mutants, including a stripper called Angel (Zoe Kravitz), who has pixielike wings, and who I don't think I'd ever heard of before; a taxi driver named Armando (whose body alters itself to adapt to survive just about any conditions, and who I don't recall having heard of before); an army prisoner named Alex Summers (who can release some kind of destructive energy, though he can't control it; I don't recall having heard of him, though his name and ability made me think he must be related to Scott Summers... on second though, I probably had heard of Alex, too, but don't know him well); and a young man named Sean (who can emit a supersonic wail, which can be used both as a weapon, and as Charles later teaches him, as a means of flying; I don't know if I'd ever heard of him). I think it was Raven who first thought of all of them taking on code names; as I mentioned, she decided to call herself "Mystique." I think Angel just called herself "Angel," Armando took the name "Darwin," Alex became "Havok," and Sean became "Banshee." And Raven also decided to call her brother "Professor X," and Eric "Magneto." Sometime later in the movie, Hank uses a serum on himself, which backfires, and turns him into the furry blue creature we all know him to be in the future. Havok dubs him "Beast."
So, basically, I've established who all the players are. Shaw and his people are trying to instigate a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. He calls mutants "children of the atom," and believes such a war would create many more mutants, at the same time that it killed much of humanity. There's plenty of talk in the movie about the rise of humans- themselves a genetic mutation of Neanderthals- having led to the extinction of their predecessors. And of course, how mutants are the next evolutionary step, who should replace homo sapiens. There is also, as always (for the franchise), talk of humanity's fear of mutants, and unwillingness to differentiate between the good and bad ones. Erik's own ideas are much the same as Shaw's, even if he can't forgive Shaw for what he'd done to his mother, so of course he spends a fair amount of time arguing with Charles, who believes humans and mutants will someday coexist peacefully. In spite of their differences, they work together to stop Shaw's plans, which lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I thought the movie did a fairly good job of insinuating all the stuff about mutants into a real historical situation.
Well, I don't want to say any more about the plot, except that it ultimately does a good job of showing us how everything started, and some other developments for characters we already knew (how Charles ends up crippled, how Magneto got his telepath-blocking helmet, how everyone came to choose sides, etc). In spite of the film's main theme being one the franchise repeats in every film, it felt fairly fresh here. And while we never really get to know much about most of the characters, the few of them that the story concentrates on are quite well developed, and can be sympathized with, even those who we know ultimately turn to evil. (Speaking of which, in any incarnation I usually hear Magneto's team called the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," which is something I'm not sure if they- or at least Magneto- call themselves, nor can I quite bring myself to include the word "Evil" in their name. Because I think most of them aren't really evil, nor even necessarily misguided in their beliefs, even if I can't agree with them.) Erm, so anyway... dunno what else to say. Good, effective story; a few interesting characters; decent effects and makeup.