Let’s face it. Prequels are made for one reason: because it’s cool to see where established legends come from. It’s all about the moments, those periodic origin instants that reveal how a certain piece of lore of the franchise came into being. And the smiles those moments draw. But you always have to keep in mind that we’re here because of the familiar, and it’s up to the filmmakers to use the familiar as a foundation to provide the same amount of memorable moments as its source. X-Men First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, regretfully doesn’t make good on that promise of a prequel; it doesn’t give you the moments and, while overall fun and fresh, not as many smiles as you’d hope.
First Class begins full circle, returning the film franchise to 1944 Poland, where Erik Lehnsherr pries a gate off its hinges as the Nazis separate him from his parents. A less than pleasant encounter with the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) unleashes the rage dwelling inside the future magnet, and Lehnsherr sets on out a warpath of vengeance. Flashforward to the Sixties. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is something of a magnet himself, a charismatic charmer of the opposite sex with McAvoy commanding the character, and notably both his legs, with vibrancy we’ve never seen before. Though I wish he was a little less sure of himself – too often he appears as wise and experienced as his older self — the pre-paraplegic professor’s performance is the highlight of the picture.
From there, the script becomes much too cluttered. Sir smooth-talking, who has befriended the blue doppelganger Raven / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), crosses paths with Lehnsherr, and with help from Agent Moira (Rose Byrne) they track a team of mutants to combat Shaw and his icy temptress played by January Jones. But between Xavier and Lehnsherr, which are the only two characters you really care about, the villains, and the team of young mutants, far too many faces make it imp0ssible for the mildest emotional attachment. The slimy Sebastian Shaw plans on starting World War III by coercing the Russians into militarizing Cuba. Clever as it is that the movie interweaves historical fact with fiction, the Cold War context is lost in a screenplay that’s already juggling half a dozen characters and their origins.
What I found extremely tiring was the geographic jumping from Germany to London to America to Russia to London to America to… I’m sure there’s a few other locales I’m forgetting. It’s literally all over the place, and reminds me of the first twenty minutes of The Bourne Ultimatum. What’s even more perturbing are the patronizing subtitles indicating a location alteration every two minutes. Snow = Russia. Beaches = America… we get it.
Yet another issue: the origins themselves. Again, the point of a prequel is that it reveals how a recognizable icon of the series comes into being, and that it does so intuitively. One obvious example would be names… the aliases of all the mutants, strategically and intelligently woven into occasional puns. Ready for disappointment? Because in First Class it’s literally someone saying, “Hey, we should give ourselves nicknames… I’ll be Mystique, you’ll be Angel, he can be Professor X…” The imaginative effort employed is overwhelming.
By and large, Marvel’s fifth mutation is an honest effort to show a younger, more innocent relationship between the Xavier-Lehnsherr rivalry, but an ambitious script spreads its characters over too much story, leaving you hungry for more. Apart from a notable cameo, X-Men First Class is short on memorable moments and the latter half of its runtime heavy on CGI action that you wish could have gone to greater character development. After all, that’s the point of the prequel… to see where established legends come from, but more importantly, how they come about. We know Magneto becomes the villain, we know that Xavier will we wheeling in a chair for the rest of his life. We want to know how these events transpire… but only frustration awaits. Don’t get me wrong. As a stand-alone, it’s solid fun. But it’s not a stand-alone. It rests on expectations, and because of that, it disappoints to be uninspiring and hardly mesmeric.