A Failing Grade to X-Men: First Class

The prequel has all the makings of a smart fantasy parable, but it torpedoes its lofty intentions with flights of idiocy so wrongheaded as to be almost endearing

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Murray Close / 20th Century Fox

Let’s say you want to take an early-summer break from the weekly onslaught of action pictures and want to trade up in quality to an art-house film. Which actors would attract you? Surely Michael Fassbender, a smoldering sensation in Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds and Jane Eyre and a true MENSA heartthrob. Perhaps James McAvoy, the winsome Scot who played the naïve doctor to Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Keira Knightley’s noble servant-class lover in Atonement. If these two aren’t the Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud of modern movies, they personify better than any 30ish stars the yin-yang of Brit passion and sensitivity. Add Jennifer Lawrence, the Best Actress Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone, and Mad Men‘s pretty, pouty January Jones, and you have an ideal cast for an uplifting transatlantic indie drama — or, since the director is Matthew Vaughn of Stardust and Kick-Ass luster, the makings of a smart fantasy parable.

Instead, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Jones and several other actors with upmarket résumés (Oliver Platt, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon) are the stars of X-Men: First Class, a farfetched farrago meant to serve as the “origins story” to the 2000-2006 trilogy about the Marvel comics’ crew of preternatural mutants. First Class alludes not just to the earliest group of strangely gifted students assembled by their genial mastermind Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in the other movies, McAvoy here) but also to the new film’s self-congratulatory air. It boldly solicits reviewers’ blurbs proclaiming that the picture lives up to its title — that it is less a cash cow than a sacred one, equal to the éclat of its celebrated young stars. Too bad that First Class torpedoes its lofty intentions with flights of idiocy so wrongheaded as to be almost endearing.

The X-Men films portrayed the battle of powerful minds: even-tempered, righteous Charles Xavier and the menacing Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), representing all that is evil, cunning and cinematically seductive. First Class transports them to their respective pre-teens, when Charles was a privileged orphan in a Westchester castle and Erik a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, where a prison doctor (Kevin Bacon) ordered the boy to “Bend this coin with your mind or I’ll kill your mother right in front of you.” Erik couldn’t; the doctor did. By 1962, now in their 20s and played by McAvoy and Fassbender, Charles and Erik have joined forces to assemble other diff-abled young people, resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis and save the world — a mission that conveniently coincides with Erik’s obsession to avenge his mother’s death by killing the doctor, now a standard-issue sneering villain, named Sebastian Shaw, with some special powers and mutants of his own.

To begin a superhero movie with the cataclysmic slaughter of one war (with the gaunt, haunted faces of Jewish victims) and end it with an event that brought the world close to Armageddon (with newsreel footage of Kennedy and Khrushchev) takes, well, nerve. It is the film’s conceit, in both senses of the word, that the combined talents of the X-kids can avert wars and mass death; too bad they sat out Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, the Cultural Revolution and any number of African genocides. The problem with dreaming up a scheme this grand is that you cheat the audience by applying it selectively. First Class does. Young Erik, for example, needs emotional fury to stoke his disruptive potency. But a gun aimed at his helpless mom — not to mention the knowledge that the doctor pointing it is part of a government conspiracy to eradicate his people — isn’t sufficient incentive, until he sees her killed.

OK, hundreds of movies, books, plays and novels have fictionalized the Final Solution for purposes of melodrama. We’re not knocking First Class for fitting Art Spiegelman’s definition of Holokitsch — though we could have done without the hint that Erik’s pursuit of Schmidt/Shaw is the vengeance of all Jews on all their predators. (Erik’s climactic declaration: “Never again!”) But why the Cuban Missile Crisis? In part, to propose Charles as the sensibly omnipotent JFK figure, with Erik as a more combative Khrushchev type. And why the early ’60s? Because it gave rise to three pop-cultural currents that flow in the blood of adults and kids a half-century later.

The most obvious is the Marvel comics renaissance. In the first three years of that decade, Stan Lee and his cohorts spawned their glorious mutants: Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. But this was also the period when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and others in the Rat Pack made their jokey, randomly numeraled action films: Ocean’s Eleven, Sergeants 3, Robin and the 7 Hoods. The new film cites the Rat Pack oeuvre by setting an important scene in a Las Vegas hotel, where Shaw’s Hellfire Club meets. First Class also sets up Jones — who in the role of the mutant ice goddess Emma Frost is a cheesecake vision in skimpy white lingerie — as First Class‘s Angie Dickinson, channeling Dickinson’s connections to both Sinatra (she was the female lead in the original Ocean’s Eleven) and Kennedy.

And the third pop phenomenon of 1962? The first James Bond film, Dr. No, which opened in London the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In all but name, First Class is a Bond movie, from the Cold War scheming of rival superpowers to the script’s plethora of glamorous or treacherous locations — right up to the end, with an animated credits sequence very much in the spirit of Maurice Binder’s work on the Bonds. Above all, it a handsome, platinum-jawed agent: Erik, with Sean Connery’s aplomb and Daniel Craig’s ruthless determination. (In this context, the more thoughtful, sedentary Charles Xavier is M to Erik’s Bond.) Speaking of which, and with due respect to Craig: Wouldn’t Fassbender, the macho dreamboat, make a perfect oo7?

Among actors of his generation, Fassbender has few competitors for radiating brains and heat: touch his forehead, and your fingerprints burn off. I n the indie films he’s made so far he’s almost always been volcanic; and Vaughn obviously didn’t tell him to lighten up just because this is a fantasy prequel. Apparently under the impression that this is Shakespeare, not Stan Lee, Fassbender exerts all his skills to transform this Magneto-in-the-making into a tragic hero. He simmers and rages, cries real tears, in an outsize performance that, whether appropriate or not to the superhero genre, dwarfs the work of his colleagues.

(Has Hollywood killed superheroes?)

McAvoy’s job as the mind-reading Charles Xavier is to keep massaging his temples like a sideshow mentalist with a migraine. Bacon has a snarky authority when he tells Charles’ young mutant pupils that “You can stay and fight for the people who enslave you, or follow me and live like kings,” though his tone is less Marvel 1962 than Diner 1982. But the actor is sabotaged in the big showdown by having to wear a metal helmet (to ward off Charles’ mind waves) that makes him look like Butters in his Professor Chaos outfit on South Park. Remember that Butters’ loyal assistant Dougie, also in supervillain garb, was known as General Disarray? That’s what First Class collapses into when Erik puts on the helmet. And the movie sinks into its own silliness with him.

It’s hard to be hard on any movie with Jones as a nasty bikini babe in bondage, and a point-of-view shot from inside a Swiss banker’s mouth as a gold filling flies out, and some energetic work from the young actors who play the mutants (each of whom, in the cosmic Marvel design, may some day get his or her own movie) and a brief cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, who, when Charles Xavier comes to recruit him, mutters “Go f— yourself.” Audiences may be grateful that they won’t have to spring an extra $4 for goggles: First Class is in ordinary, good-looking 2-D. And even a movie that drives itself crazy with the internal contradictions of its big ideas is preferable to one that just lies there feet up, like a dog taking a nap. (Yes, you, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.)

But if Fassbender, Jones, McAvoy and Lawrence are going to be cast together in a story about bright, crippled people desperately battling their demons and tearing one another part, I’d just as soon it were a remake of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?