The mutants: we even care about them.
The optimal age for watching X-Men: First Class is fifteen. This prequel to the series has heroes, villains, action, explosions, and above all it has an enormous yuck factor - as in people who melt, spit fire, and turn blue. I had the questionable pleasure of watching this movie in a theater full of teen-age boys and middle-age men. After the screen went dark at last, they headed in a block for the lobby where they stood around the candy stand discussing the physics and philosophy of action movies, much as academics might discuss a performance of Hamlet or opera lovers The Marriage of Figaro.
The movie opens with a wallop. In a World War II concentration camp a young boy is separated from his parents when an iron gate slams shut. In horror, the boy rivets his eyes and screams toward the gate, willing it to open. It does, though just a little. Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) sees immediately that the boy has special powers that will fit neatly into his own post war plans to create a tribe of mutants whose powers will tame mankind. But Erik refuses the offer and the plotline is set. It will be Erik (Michael Fassbender) vs. Dr. Schmidt, aka Sebastian Shaw. Driven by the indelible image of that gate, Erik will use his power of focus to find Schmidt.
Teaming up with Charles, an aspiring British academic similarly endowed with a special power (mind reading), Erik and his new friend decide to assemble a band of mutants. Together they train ferociously, and often comically, for the shared goal of finding Schmidt who, they have learned, is planning to provoke World War III between America and Russia (it's 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is under way). Their challenge: save the world and avenge Erik's parents in one stroke by destroying Shaw.
How much fun is it to watch all this? For a summer blockbuster with comic book roots, quite a lot. By now we know all about each mutant and his/her special ability. We even care about them. Each has some comic vulnerability to offset a particular strength. They are almost, if not quite, adorable. It's awfully hard to love an alien robot, but these are real people with an emotional range we understand with the addition of a magical gift that passed the rest of us by. Kevin Bacon is wonderfully evil while James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder are appealingly pure. January Jones is a deadly dull ice princess.
Off the Cuban shore, the Russian and American navies face each other in two lines that resemble the redcoats and the colonials in the Revolution; but this time it is missiles, not muskets, that are aimed across the line. The mutants you have come to know and love bravely assume the challenge of world peace. Get ready for an ocean battle in a special effects extravaganza that will thrill the most demanding action lover.
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