By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin June 3, 2011 at 4:42AM
It’s risky to reinvent an established series with a new cast and a different setting than fans are accustomed to…but the folks at Marvel have gambled and won. Despite its flaws, X-Men: First Class is an effective reboot of the once-solid series that debuted eleven years ago.
The company’s best decision was casting two solid actors in the crucial leading roles, young men who can fill the shoes eventually worn by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. James McAvoy is the Oxford professor (and mutant) who will eventually be known as Professor X, and Michael Fassbender plays the childhood victim of Nazi torture who is destined to become Magneto. The conviction of their performances, and the growing nature of their relationship, pulls us back on track more than once as we—
—follow this movie’s long and winding road.
That’s because the bloated screenplay, credited to six writers altogether, tries to cover too much ground and introduce a daunting number of new characters to the X-Men universe. Some of them, like Raven (the future Mystique), played by smart, appealing Jennifer Lawrence, are well-drawn, as is her budding love interest, a super-smart scientist (and mutant) played by the likable Nicholas Hoult.
Others among the young people with “special skills” who are recruited by McAvoy and Fassbender don’t get enough screen time for us to connect with them on an emotional level.
As a former Nazi turned world-class evildoer, Kevin Bacon goes through the motions, but seems to be holding himself in check, not wanting to snarl or overact. Bacon is a versatile actor, but I can’t help thinking that a more naturally colorful or flamboyant performer would have made the character more fun to watch. January Jones is appropriately sexy as his mutating accomplice.
X-Men: First Class is nothing if not ambitious, attempting to weave its fantastic, comic-book characters into the realm of real life, opening in Poland during World War Two and winding up in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I’m not entirely comfortable with the melding of these two worlds. Director Matthew Vaughn gets the most out of the material he has to work with, but there is something genuinely odd about the integration of historical crises and the fanciful nature of our mutant heroes—and a larger-than-life villain.
My taste runs towards a “less is more” philosophy, which obviously isn’t in line with the way Marvel makes movies. X-Men: First Class weighs in at two hours and twelve minutes, and I can’t help but feel it would have been better had the script been pruned and more tightly focused. But I don’t think fans are going to object, because the movie’s strengths—unusual characters, eye-opening visual effects, and commanding lead actors—ultimately outweigh its faults.