One for the fan boys

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly


Primarily for dues-paying “X-Men” club members in good standing, rather than anyone wandering by a multiplex wondering if the prequel stands on its own, X-Men: First Class settles for moderately engrossing second-class mutant super-heroism. Plus it includes January Jones as Emma Frost, here depicted as Austin Powers’ dream shag, and Rose Byrne as a perpetually aghast CIA operative.

Mainly, though, the film features Michael Fassbender in a pivotal role. That’s enough to lift it above the mechanics of the routine.

If you don’t know the name, you may know the face. Recognizable from Hunger, Inglourious Basterds and the recent Jane Eyre, the German-born, Irish-bred Fassbender brings a dash of authority and brio to every assignment. In X-Men: First Class there’s a moment when his character — Erik Lehnsherr, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a so-called mutant who can bend metal at will — tests out his long-distance ability to rotate, counterclockwise, a massive satellite tower. Fassbender’s required to strike “the pose,” i.e., fingers on both hands spread out in Zap Position, ready to perform the magnetizing feat of wonder, furrowed brow in full furrow, gaze intent.

It’s the kind of bit that can make even a skilled actor look like an idiot. Yet Fassbender does not look like an idiot. He looks as if he has been bending hunks of metal with his mind regularly, just for practice.

Directed with bland efficiency by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), X-Men: First Class juggles a massively full roster of mutants as it heads toward the finish line and the answer to the question: What really happened to provoke, and then narrowly avert, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis? When Fassbender, in the role played by Ian McKellen in earlier X-Men outings, is allowed some elbow room, you notice and appreciate what’s at stake. And when the many-hands screenplay lets him match wits with future nemesis Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, the film snaps into focus.

The story, cooked up by Bryan Singer, exploits both the Holocaust and the Cold War for its own ends, as did the Marvel Comics originals. The evil mastermind behind the Cuban missile gambit starts out, a generation earlier, as a Mengele-like Nazi doctor introduced by the movie in a 1944 concentration camp prologue. Both iterations of the character are played by Kevin Bacon in full ferret mode. How does this material square with the funsy 1962-set training sequences, where we see the proto-X-Men and -Women testing out their various transformational and destructive abilities? Not very easily.

First under CIA tutelage (Oliver Platt plays their overseer) and then in the confines of Xavier’s remote mansion, the mutants must learn to marshal their abilities. I confess I find it hard to keep everybody’s superpowers straight with this franchise. It’s like learning the names of every one of your child’s classmates. The good mutants include cobalt-blue Mystique ( Jennifer Lawrence), the boy-man with hands for feet known as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and many others. The story hops and skips from Moscow to Vegas to England to Cuba. The film improves on the heavy-spirited X-Men Origins: Wolverine of two years ago. Still, the deadliest single element in this film can be traced not to Bacon’s character, but to composer Henry Jackson, whose music seems determined to kill us all with waves of dramatic nothingness.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service