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X-Men: First Class
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer)
Stars: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw / Dr. Schmidt), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), January Jones (Emma Frost), Oliver Platt (MIB), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank / Beast), Zoe Kravitz (Angel Salvadore / Wings), Jason Flemyng (Azazel), Lucas Till (Alex Summers / Havok), Caleb Landry Jones (Cassidy / Banshee), Alex Gonzalez (Janos Questad / Riptide), Edi Gathegi (Darwin Armondo)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class Now entering its second decade after four movies and three directors, the X-Men series gets a much-needed jolt of energy and vitality from the fifth entry, X-Men: First Class, which, as the title suggests, is a prequel/series reboot in the vein of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek (2009). Familiar characters are given new, younger faces while various histories and interrelationships are fleshed out against a backdrop of 1960s mod styles (courtesy of James Bond) and Cold War tensions (courtesy of Dr. Strangelove). Longtime fans of both the comic book series, which was launched by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics in 1962, and the movie series, which began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, should be relieved that director Matthew Vaughn, the British expat who most recently gave us the ultra-violent superhero satire Kick-Ass (2009), guides the film with a sure hand, allowing plenty of room for the dramatics to unfold without getting too dark or serious, as Gavin Hood did in the most recent installment, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2008).

The story takes place in an alternate reality in which the human race has begun to evolve via “mutants,” people who carry a special X-gene that gives them unique powers (and sometimes unique appearances). As Singer’s original film did, X-Men: First Class begins in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 with a Jewish preteen named Erik Lehnsherr learning that he has the power to bend metal with his mind when he is angry enough. The screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer expands on Erik’s Holocaust experiences by introducing the character of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a scientist working for the Nazis who takes a special interest in Erik’s abilities. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a young Charles Xavier, a British telepath who opens his home to a shape-shifting girl named Raven who naturally appears with blue, scaly skin and cat-like yellow eyes.

The film then moves forward two decades to the early 1960s where we find Charles (James McAvoy), a brash and charming intellectual, finishing his doctorate in genetics at Oxford and living with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who is now his adopted sister. Erik (Michael Fassbender), meanwhile, is determinedly scouring the globe for Shaw in order to avenge both his torment in the concentration camp and the death of his mother at Shaw’s hand. Charles and Erik’s paths eventually cross when they join forces with a CIA operative named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to stop Shaw, who appears to be helping the Soviets in the nuclear arms race. Shaw, as it turns out, is a powerful mutant who can absorb and control energy, and his real plan is to play the United States and the Soviet Union against each other until they unleash their nuclear arsenals and decimate the world, thus cleansing the planet of the human race and allowing mutants, with him as their leader, to rule. Shaw is aided by a trio of mutants who share his plans: Emma Frost (January Jones), a telepath whose skin can morph into diamond-like armor; Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a red-skinned teleporter; and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), who can control wind. Charles, Erik, and Raven reach and eventually bring into their fold a motley assortment of young mutants, all of whom have been hiding their abilities out of fear. These include Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), a stripper with hidden wings; Alex Summers (Lucas Till), a surly teen criminal who can send out powerful waves of energy; and Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), who can make supersonic sounds with his vocal chords that allow him to fly at the speed of sound.

The core of X-Men: First Class is not so much the Cold War action plot, which culminates in Shaw’s behind-the-scenes engineering of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but rather the relationship between Charles and Erik, who represent diametrically opposed views of the world. Both are realistic enough to realize that mutants and humans will not be able to co-exist easily, but while Charles views humans as essentially decent and in need of education to bring out their better selves, Erik sees them as inherently violent, fearful, and given to persecution of anyone who is different. Charles insists that they be the “better men” by forsaking humanity’s violent tendencies; Erik, on the other hand, insists that they already are, by which he means they should assert their physical and mental superiority before humankind tries to round them up and kill them as the Nazis did the Jews. Erik’s entire worldview is shaped by his experiences in the Holocaust, which is what has always made his character so compelling. Even when he becomes the arch-nemesis Magneto, a moment toward which the entire film is building, his villainy is based in a rational understanding of humanity’s worst tendencies (disturbingly visualized early in the movie when we get a 180-degree cut that reveals the other half of Shaw’s otherwise unremarkable oak office to be a glistening mad-scientist dungeon of metal tables and bladed instruments). Even if you don’t agree with it, you understand Erik’s philosophy.

That sociopolitical dynamic had been largely lacking from the last two X-Men films, which included Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and its re-emergence in First Class helps bolster its character arcs and the action sequences, which Vaughn orchestrates with a sense of both grandeur and coherence. The screenplay teeters on overload at times, as the film is jam-packed with multiple subplots involving important characters, particularly Raven, whose desire to be “normal” draws her to Hank (Nicholas Hoult), a nerdish young scientist who has been hiding his own mutation: a pair of apelike feet that give him super speed. Raven and Hank’s converging and eventually diverging desires to blend in with that which they are not provides a compacted summation of the entire series’ fundamental tension: integration versus separation. It is not surprising that racial and ethnic allegory has been read into the series throughout its history, and while First Class doesn’t push the subtext too far, it is still powerfully present, even when submarines are being telepathically lifted out of the ocean and multi-colored mutants are battling it out aboard an aircraft carrier. Both McAvoy and Fassbender bring new dimensions to the characters played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in the previous films. McAvoy (Atonement) ably charts Charles’s arc from privileged, rich-boy smugness to controlled benefactor of future mutant generations, while Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) channels Erik’s intense sense of rage, thus imbuing both characters with matching intensities of conviction that will inevitably lead to the demise of their friendship and the genesis of their rivalry.

X-Men: First Class Blu-Ray + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround
  • Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital surround
  • French 5.1 Dolby Digital surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • 10 Marvel X-Men digital comics with exclusive X-Men: First Class Backstory Comic
  • “Cerebro Mutant Tracker” interactive mutant database
  • “Children of the Atom” eight-part behind-the-scenes featurette
  • “‘X’ Marks the Spot” interactive feature
  • Extended and deleted scenes
  • BD-Live Portal with additional Cerebro Mutant Tracker profiles
  • Isolated musical score
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 13, 2011

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    The high-definition 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation of X-Men: First Class looks fantastic. The image is sharp, beautifully detailed, and as far as I can tell a very faithful representation of how it looked in theaters. The color palettes, which range from the dull grays and browns of the opening concentration camp sequences, to the predominance of blues and steely silvers in the final beach battle, are all perfectly rendered, as are the black levels, which allows the shadow detail to pop and avoids any black crush. I didn’t see any noticeable edge enhancements or artifacting, so I can’t imagine the image looking much better. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-surround soundtrack is also first-rate, with excellent fidelity, spaciousness, and a powerful low end. I’m a bit surprised they didn’t include a 7.1-channel mix, but even without the additional surround channels, it is still a completely enveloping experience. You also have the option of hearing Henry Jackman’s musical score on an isolated channel, a feature that I wish more Blu-Rays offered.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    20th Century Fox has been quite generous with the supplements, packing out the Blu-Ray with significant behind-the-scenes goodies as well as extras that expand on the X-Men universe, starting with 10 Marvel X-Men digital comics, including an exclusive X-Men: First Class backstory comic, and access to the complete “Cerebro Mutant Tracker,” an interactive mutant database with videos and information about all the mutants that appear in the films. For those interested in the film’s production, there is an eight-part, 70-minute documentary titled “Children of the Atom,” which traces the film from pre-production through post-production, including visual effects, prosthetic make-up, and costume design. Includes are interviews with most of the cast members, several producers and writers, and director Matthew Vaughn, who is quite candid about his near-experience directing X-Men: The Last Stand. Further information about the production is contained in “‘X’ Marks the Spot,” an interactive feature that allows you to watch short interviews and behind-the-scenes vignettes while watching the film (these can also be viewed separately). This supplements are rounded out with extended and deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


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