Review by Ryan Wilson

Like the genetic evolution that spawned them, there’s no killing the X-Men. In fact, after multiple successes and failures to translate the Marvel heroes to film, the franchise just seems to grow stronger, as witnessed in the latest installment, X-Men First Class.

Like many comic book purists, I’ll admit to being skeptical about this prequel that chronicles how Professor Xavier and Magneto first met as allies and devolved into enemies. It’s safe to say that the entire X-Men chronology went askew somewhere between the X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand. It was both a brave and a brash move to kill of major characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey to make room for a weak Wolverine spin-off. After four mutant movies it’s fair to ask if we even still care.

The answer: of course. Probably because the X-Men, no matter the form they take, are more interesting than your typical superheroes. That’s because they’re different. If Superman and Captain America are the classic rock of superheroes, then the X-Men are the alternative or emo kids of the hero crowd. They’re a different, less enthused, reluctant group, who would stand well outside of the spotlight if they could. Their mutations make them first victims of a judgmental society, and then the better angels of that society. For this reason they’re easily a metaphor for any minority that’s struggled for acceptance.

Professor Xavier and Magneto especially work well because they attempt to battle discrimination from two separate philosophies, making the franchise unusually intellectual for a comic book. You just have to love any summer film that makes you ponder evolution and sociology while blowing stuff up.

X-Men First Class adds one more course to its schedule: history. Set in the early 1960s, the young mutants must essentially defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. It makes perfect sense to retool the series in the 60s; the X-Men comic launched in 1963 as a reflection of the Civil Rights Movement. One disappointment with the new film is the lack of this subtext, but the film mainly has Soviet Russia and Cold War paranoia on the brain.

James McAvoy plays the young professor as a sort of tweedy Austin Powers, while Michael Fassbender turns Magneto into an open wound of anger. Together they combine talents to fight Kevin Bacon? Really? The guy from Footloose? When we first see Bacon as an evil doctor at a Nazi internment camp, it feels like nothing more than a cameo, like Bacon is just doing the gig to increase the six degrees of himself, but he soon demonstrates his acting chops and convinces us that he’s a formidable opponent. Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw, a seemingly immortal mutant who keeps his youth by absorbing energy. Shaw leads the menacing Hellfire Club, hell-bent on beginning World War III so as to become royalty in the remaining rubble.

Longtime X-Men favorite Emma Frost is Shaw’s right hand. She’s a mutant telepath who lounges around in her underwear when not manipulating others with her mind. Too bad Mad Men’s January Jones is woefully miscast as this vixen. Instead of seducing us, Jones’ delivery sounds just as monotone as her frustrated housewife Betty Draper. Also, if I recall, Emma Frost is supposed to be British. But, as with most X-Men story arcs, the villains are merely the window dressing for the internal conflicts within the core group itself, which are much more interesting. For example, a young Mystique considers her own grotesque beauty, while a young Beast must learn to accept his animal nature. That these are teenagers working through these identity issues rings especially true. They’re looking for a place where they belong.

Which leads us back to Professor Xavier and Magneto. By seeing them as young men, we get to see how foolishly optimistic and foolishly eager they are to change the world for the better. Professor Xavier especially comes across as a Kennedy disciple, reframing his school for the gifted as a sort of mutant Peace Corps. Also, given his ultimate failure (both in this movie and the later X-Men films) Xavier’s personal tragedy reflects the lost innocence of the Kennedy era. By the end of the film, neither he nor Magneto can claim victory, but they carry on attempting the dreams of their youth.

X-Men First Class at times feels like its own college seminar on ethics, history, and yes, comic book lore. Though it doesn’t really adhere to every chronological rule in the Marvel Universe, it’s familiar enough to pass the fan-boy test. Like a good teacher, the movie is more than about getting every answer correct; it’s about enjoying the lecture.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011