X-MEN FIRST CLASS REVIEW (GRADE B+): After the sloppy and empty-headed X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this prequel gets the franchise back on track with style and smarts. In fact, I'd say that it's the second-best film in the series, behind only the exemplary X2: X-Men United (unlike many people, I like the first and third films about the same, finding both to be flawed but entertaining). Taking us back to the 1940's and 1960's, First Class reveals the fascinating backstory of young Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto), whose status as personal friends/ideological enemies was arguably the most compelling aspect of the original trilogy. As portrayed by James McCavoy (The Chronicles of Narnia, Penelope) and newcomer Michael Fassbender, their friendship crackles with mutual respect and admiration.
The tension between the one's pacifism and the other's eye-for-an-eye militarism reminded me of the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X. Both actors give terrific, intelligent, and emotion-driven performances from a script that adds richness and depth to their tragic bond. Kevin Bacon, as the villain, gives his most enjoyably vile performance since The River Wild. The other actors, for the most part, do fine work. The action sequences are thrilling, the special effects are seamless , the humor and emotional moments hit their marks, and the tone has traces of a 1960's James Bond film. Also, though several moments openly pander to fans of the other films, they do so smartly and to crowd-pleasing effect.
The film isn't perfect. The pacing drags a bit from time to time. Some of the peripheral characters are one-note, bland, and exist only to showcase a superpower (though, in fairness, this is true of all the X-men movies). The film goes to great lengths to make Lehnsherr (Magneto) a sympathetic villain; the audience may disagree with his methods, but it's clear why he believes and acts as he ultimately does. It fails, however, to give the same depth to Charles Xavier's motivations and philosophies. We see that he is courageous, wise, caring, and a pacifist, but we never see why. McAvoy's performance makes him more three-dimensional than the script, but the end effect is that one almost roots for the murderous anti-villain more than the undisputed good guy. Some of the dialogue is purely expository and doesn't sound natural (usually when Bacon is plotting something with his henchwoman). However, compared to the intelligence and craft of the film as a whole, these flaws are minor. X-Men:First Class has emerged as the year's most pleasant suprise (so far) and a welcome return to form for the mutant superheroes.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: X-Men First Class is rated PG-13. Like the other X-Men films, it has plenty of action violence, as well as some language, immodesty and sensuality. A parade of women are gratuitously seen in their underwear. There is a brief scene where two characters go to recruit another character at a strip club (I covered my eyes with my hat, but am told there was no nudity). A woman channels a mental projection into a man's head that she is sitting on his lap and kissing him, but the scene is played for comedic, rather than arousing, effect. There is one f-word and a handful of other profanities, though foul language is not a consistent issue in this film. A character uses his superpower (metal manipulation) to remove a man's metal tooth filling, stab and shoot another two characters, and to drive a coin through the head of another.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Differences are to be celebrated. Fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to hate, which leads to violence and destruction. Talents can be used for helping others (good) or for selfish means (evil). Vengeance does not bring peace.
For another solid superhero flick, check out Hellboy II: The Golden Army!
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.