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X-Men: First Class Succeeds When It Should Fail

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X-Men: First Class succeeds when it should fail. It takes what should be too many heroes and villains, an origin story, a choice of who is right and who is wrong, an established franchise, and manages to remain focused, engaging, recognizable, and at times, extraordinary.

Plot-wise X-Men: First Class is about good mutants preventing bad mutants from instigating nuclear war, but thematically it's about three schools of thought. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has the power to read and control minds. He unfailingly believes in the best in everyone, and spends all his efforts trying to make the world as good as he thinks it can be. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is the embodiment of Newton's third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you shoot him with a gun, or attack him with a bomb, he simply absorbs it without being hurt and can then expel a force of equal magnitude. Shaw wants mutant-kind to dominate the Earth and destroy as many ordinary humans in the process. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has the ability to manipulate metal; anything from a paperclip to a jet plane. Erik believes in the worst in mankind, and sees everyone as obstacles in the way of his revenge on Sebastian Shaw. After meeting Charles, however, Erik too wants to protect mutants, but only mutants. Together, Charles and Erik gather a group of young mutants and train them in order to stop Shaw (who has his own band of mutants The Hellfire Club) from orchestrating and executing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The film wisely engages us in a war of character motivation. We love Erik's ferocity in his solitary quest for revenge, but want him to accept help from Charles. Likewise, we want to believe in Charles's altruistic vision, but see government officials as untrustworthy, reactionary, bigots. Seeing as the film is set in 1963, men don't even fully accept women, let alone mutants. One CIA official quips, "This is what happens when you let a woman in the agency." It's these types of attitudes that fuel the sub-theme of mutants accepting who they are. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has the ability to morph into anyone she chooses, but her original form has blue, scaley skin and yellow eyes. Hank McCoy's (Nicholas Hoult) only visible mutation is his big feet, but hides them religiously. Raven and Hank immediately recognize kindred spirits in each other; people who don't like what they see in the mirror.

Growing up I remember this funny looking kid I knew from grade three to the end of high school. He wasn't horrific looking, but his nose was crooked, his shoulders were more like a woman's, and (probably due to his nose) his voice was high-pitched with a strong nasal quality. Over ten years I don't think I saw him make one friend. Most people have felt like outsiders or freaks at one point, but probably not to the degree this kid did.

X-Men: First Class captures that desire for acceptance better than its predecessors. Unlike the first X-Men film that leaves this theme with one character, all our protagonists in First Class yearn for self-assurance. Part of the film's story is that mutants have not yet been revealed to the world; or even to each other. Most assumed they were alone. When the young mutants first meet, they're like peacocks that have hidden their feathers their whole lives. Watching them strut their powers is one of the things that keeps the movie jubilant.

The exploration of their powers does a good job of hiding what would otherwise be shallow characters. If you want to see the same depth and time devoted to every character, you won't. There's no time for that because First Class excels at moving forward. But somehow after three other films the sting of unexplored characters is less because we're already familiar with the X-Men universe.

It's the friendship between Erik and Charles, and the performances by Fassbender and McAvoy that is the films most outstanding quality. Until now movies have portrayed Professor X and Magneto like pillars mutants rally around. Their power and responsibility is so great they wear it on their faces like a stony visage. When they use their powers we expect to hear orchestral music and hallelujahs. Fassbender gives me the Magneto I've wanted all my life: young, recklessly angry, quick, physical, raw, and vulnerable. All actors take note: that's how you cry like a man.

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