Having enjoyed three previous X-Men pictures (I skipped the Wolverine movie) as comics-based movies, I expected the prequel X-Men: First Class, released earlier this year, to deliver the same results and it does. It moves too fast, contains too many characters, and, with fright wigs, leaps of logic and girls in go-go boots, it’s too campy and unserious to compete in a league with Marvel’s own Captain America, but they’re all like that and at least this one’s not as dark. With one glaring problem I have with the plot, this Fox film makes an enjoyable DVD pick.
Blitzing the screen with no less than seven different locations in the dizzying first 15 minutes, the story of two men who are “mutants” with special powers sets up the conflict. One man, Eric, is a Jew tortured by the Nazis as a boy. He grows up and gets the fascists back in the movie’s best scene. The other, Charles, is a “telepath” who can read minds and he grows up to be called by his country to defend against a dictatorship worse than the National Socialists (though X doesn’t depict it that way): the Soviet Union. A third mutant, played by actor Kevin Bacon, has been engaged by the Communists against America, climaxing as most readers know in the so-called Cuban missile crisis. It’s a terrific and exciting premise.
As the plot adds humans, mutants, G-men and X-men alike, switching locales faster than a mutant morphs into some other form, the good mutants manage to find what amounts to a new class of supermen, with the series’ theme that it’s OK to be different well intact. Accept and love yourself is offset by lines about finding something “bigger than yourself”, which sounds ripped from an Obama or McCain speech, but the action moves and amid the subplots there are some amusing characterizations, such as they are, and thrilling scenes. When the students are training with Charles and Eric, who begin to take divergent paths in battling the Soviets, who are usually referred to as Russians, X-Men: First Class has the most fun. The whole thing has the energy of Fox’s 24 with the style of the TV show Mad Men. Very episodic, not larger than life.
Costumes are amazing though totally ridiculous, such as miniskirts, which didn’t appear until long after the movie’s 1962 setting, but it is a comic book movie after all. There are too many in the cast to mention and few are in the movie long enough to stand out, but the leads are fine and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Edi Gathegi (Atlas Shrugged, Part One) and Lucas Till (Battle Los Angeles) make the most of the student roles. The big Cold War missile climax is forced and overdone, and a sort of fatigue sets in trying to keep track of the multiple subplots (another series trademark).
My major problem with X-Men: First Class is that, by reframing the historic confrontation between the Soviets and the Americans, not only does it play fast and loose with history (in reality, the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Communist Cuba, aiming them at U.S. cities, because President Kennedy had foolishly and dangerously allowed the Soviets to put up the Berlin Wall), the movie diminishes what really happened and reduces a nuclear conflict to a bout between bad and good X-men, which minimizes Soviet barbarism. I never got the feeling that the entire United States was at stake. Instead, both Soviet Russia and the U.S. are practically given moral equivalency. It drains the drama from the showdown.
The DVD (available Sept. 9, also on Blu-Ray) comes with a 22-minute insider feature in which one of the film’s creators refers to Kevin Bacon as “just about the coolest guy in the universe” and it’s clearly geared toward diehard X-Men comics fans. Fox also includes an anti-smoking propaganda piece for the state of California and an instructional feature about how to use the digital copy included with the DVD.