Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

X-Men: First Class (directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay co-written by Ashley Miller and Zach Stentz and others) is based on the X-Men comic series by Marvel Comics.

Set initially during World War II and then principally during the period immediately leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, this movie is a “prequel” to the X-Men series, focusing on the origins of the X-men comics’ principal adversaries: (Professor) Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy, young Charles played by Lawrence Belcher) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender, young Erik played by Bill Milner). 

Born into privilege though with a tragic home life in Westchester, New York, Charles Xavier was a young boy during World War II.  Erik Lehnsherr (Max Eisenhardt in the original comic) was born Jewish in Nazi Germany.  Sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, Erik watched his family (in the original series) or his mother (in this movie) murdered before his eyes by the Nazis. 

Both discovered early that they had “special powers,” Xavier that he could communicate with people telepathically, Erik that he could move and bend iron. 

Initially neither knew of anyone else with similar powers.  By chance one evening (and perhaps because his childhood was less traumatic than Erik’s) the young Xavier encounters a young girl named Raven, later calling herself Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence, young Raven played by Morgan Lily), who had shape-shifted into looking like Xavier’s mother.  Since Raven was acting much too nicely to be his mother, Xavier realizes that something is awry, and when Raven shape-shifts back to her blue skinned, young girl self, both Xavier and Raven discover that “they’re not alone.” He realizes that these special powers derive from some kind of genetic mutation.  Xavier then decides to make the study of genetic mutation and its effect on human evolution his life’s work. 

In contrast, Erik does not discover anyone else with special powers until he’s an adult.  In fact, he’s not particularly interested in finding out if there were any others like him.  Instead, he remains understandably consumed with avenging the deaths of his family, especially of his mother by the Nazi doctor, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker in the original series, Sebastian Strucker (played by Kevin Bacon) in the movie.  Strucker took interest in him and wanted to harness Erik’s power, which he discovered was set off by anger.  (Hence, why Strucker had Erik’s mother brought into the lab and shot in front of him, in order to set Erik off ...).

After the war like many Nazis, the evil doctor Strucker fled Europe.  More than a decade later now an adult but still _very angry_, Erik follows Strucker's trail down to Argentina where he discovers that Dr. Strucker had changed his name to Sebastian Shaw and had become a nefarious international arms merchant working out of Miami, Florida dealing with both the Americans and the Soviets and playing them off against each other.  Erik decides to head to Miami to “take care” of him there.

But there’s more to Shaw/Dr Strucker as well.  It turns out that he’s a mutant too.  That is what US intelligence agent Moira MacTaggert (played by Rose Byrne) discovers.  To better understand what the U.S./world is up against in regards to the "mutant" Shaw and his allies, she looks up "an expert," Charles Xavier... 

This then sets up the rest of the story.  Xavier now knows that there are at least three mutants in the world: himself, Raven and Shaw.  He does not know of Erik yet.  Along with Moira and her agency, he quickly sets out to look for more.  There is little time to waste as Shaw is bent on playing the Americans and Soviets against each other in the events that lead up to what the world remembers today as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  (History of course, don't remember any "mutants" involved, but Marvel Comics, here "sets us straight" ;-).

The rest of the movie is about the three key mutants – Xavier, Erik/Magneto and Strucker/Shaw – playing out their approaches to dealing with “being a mutant," that is, being Different, a radical "Other:" 

Strucker/Shaw _wants_ the Americans and Russians to blow themselves up, to destroy humanity and create _more mutants_.  Xavier believes that humans and mutants _can work together_ especially if humans better appreciated what mutants could do for the world.  Erik/Magneto, already literally marked by a tatoo for his radical Otherhood (being Jewish) in The Holocaust, hates Strucker/Shaw and wants to kill him to avenge the death of his mother.  But he does not believe that humanity would ever accept “mutants” as good.

Other mutants including Angel (played by Zoe Kravatz), Hank/Beast (played by Nicholas Hoult),  Alex Summers/Havoc (played by Lucas Till), and Raven/Mistique struggle in different ways with their Otherness and choose sides brewing the conflict.

It all makes for another rather compelling morality tale presented in Marvel Comics' "trademark" style/language to adolescents: How do we look at our “Otherness” or the “Otherness” of those around us?  Can we see it as potential Gift to the Community, the larger Whole?  Or do we see “Otherness” something to be feared, put-down, hidden, eliminated? 

And yes, there’s a religious question in all this which pertains with a particular importance to the Catholic Church: What could/should the role/place of "the Other" be in our faith, which after all is to be: "One, Holy Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic?

Finally, this isn't the first X-men movie to come out based on the Comic.  There have been four others X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), of varying suitability to younger viewers.  Most, while somewhat confusing to follow, were fine.  The last, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was however criticized for being too graphic in its violence and, well, showed a bit more physically of one of the male mutants than was really necessary ...

This new movie, X-Men: First Class, returns to the realm of legitimate PG-13 fare and in terms of plot clarity is probably the clearest of the series thus far.  All in all the movie's not great but still pretty good.  Marvel's made better, but it's also made worse.  Perhaps the story's just too complicated, with too many nuanced characters for a comic book / series.

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