Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
I’m not sure why I didn’t see this earlier. I’ve always liked, though frequently stopped reading, the X-Men books, and enjoyed the original film trilogy and Wolverine film well enough, with qualifications. I guess I saw this quasi-prequel as kind of pointless. I’ve certainly read plenty of variations on the X-Men and Magneto origins, and the thought of pushing this one back closer to the original comics timeline of the early ’60s, and tying it to the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed, again, pointless and sort of silly. And if I’m being honest, there was probably some dumb fanboy part of me concerned that there was no way they could make this work, continuity-wise, with the other films.
It so happens that the writers’ almost gleeful dispensing with continuity is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. Just to be clear, the basics are here: Erik Lensherr/Magneo (Fassbender), was a WWII concentration camp Jew whose anger at the Nazis triggered his power. Charles Xavier is a rich telepathic mutant who wants to help others like him, and eventually befriends Erik, their missions and worldviews differing but overlapping for most of the film. We also find typical X-Men story meat such as government fear and young mutant desires to either be normal or accepted for the special creatures they are. What makes all this work is sturdy craftsmanship in the writing, direction, editing, effects and music, but it’s the novelty in how all these things are played out that keeps this from being a rehash. Xavier (McAvoy) as a swinging London playboy using his mutant theories as pick-up lines? Groovy. Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) as his best friend, stifled by his disapproving big brother act and hurt by his failure to accept her true appearance? Works for me. Add to that some enjoyable ’60s settings, and a reasonably good cast of villains led by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) and some powerful if anonymous soldiers, and the various plot threads, romantic entanglements, vengeance scenarios and shifting alliances play out very well over the course of an over two hour film that doesn’t feel like it has any real fat on it.
Hardcore fans will naturally question some things. Alex Summers/Havok is, in the comics, Cyclops’ younger brother, so what is he doing here in 1962 and where is Cyclops? Hank McCoy/Beast is also of a similar age. Angel (Zoe Kravitz) is now a hot African-American girl with insect-like, not birdlike, wings. But, you know, who cares? As long as one doesn’t worry about having to tie into a series of movies with other actors that aren’t all that classic to begin with, this is a lot of fun. My only concern with character choices was the Shaw sidekick Azazel, who is literally just a red Nightcrawler who kills people. It seems like there must have been an earlier draft with Nightcrawler in this role and then it was decided the murders just didn’t jibe with the character. There’s also a guy who makes whirlwinds who is never even named, which feels like a cheat for some reason. I also felt bad that one of the two black characters, Darwin, is killed very quickly. As far as real flaws, while it’s true that the actors playing Banshee and Havok aren’t given much to do (Banshee is more of a contemporary California duuuude and Havok is just a mean dick to Hank who can’t control his powers), the only actor who really comes up short here is January Jones, who seems mainly cast as eye candy. She doesn’t have that sexy swagger or sense that she’s capable of leadership that the character usually has, and her voice has no presence. For that matter, Bacon is very pro forma in the sneering villain role. Fortunately, McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence are all capable of giving dimension and individuality to their characters.