As Charles (James McAvoy) watches, Erik (Michael Fassbender) wields his… (Murray Close / Twentieth…)
It would take a brain far more telepathically powerful than that of Professor X to untangle what went wrong with "X-Men: First Class," but misplaced and misplayed ambition, to say nothing of a massive misspent budget, comes to my nonmutant mind.
The latest edition of the sprawling action-comic-fantasy epic takes us back to the future with moments of greatness. But those flashes of amazing are fleeting, ultimately undone by a frustrating mire of multiple plots, overreaching special effects, leaden ancillary players and world-ending military standoffs that have all the tension of a water balloon fight.
The film stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, two "First Class" standouts, as Professor X and Magneto in the '60s, when they were just a couple of mutants working through their power issues. But there is more, so much more … a back story about the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; a subplot tied to an evil Nazi mutant (Kevin Bacon doing vile particularly well); a running teen coming-of-age bit featuring some X-Men mutant favorites; a CIA-in-conflict story; a U.S. colonel compromised by lingerie models; and a few more threads I'm probably forgetting.
The stories unfold in — deep breath — Auschwitz, New York,England, Argentina, Las Vegas, Miami, Moscow, somewhere outside of Moscow, Virginia, under the ocean, in the sky, on the ground, underground, under polar icecaps and in several undisclosed locations. At times it feels like someone was playing spin and point with an old globe of the world.
British director Matthew Vaughn somehow lets everything get away from him, which is unlike most of his well-calibrated early work, from his 2005 debut, "Layer Cake," to 2009's "Harry Brown," which he produced. The script is from a team whose players included Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman and Vaughn (they collaborated on "Kick-Ass" among others).
The film begins with such promise, a near perfect re-creation of the powerful Auschwitz scene that opened the original "X-Men" in 2000. It's when Magneto was a boy heartbreakingly separated from his parents at the prison gates, his metal-twisting powers unleashed, but too late to save them. We get the next terrible chapter in that book now, which introduces us to Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) as a Nazi big shot with an operating room next to his office and a persuasive gun who presses Erik into service. It plants the seeds of revenge and mistrust that will drive Erik the rest of his days.
At the same time, across the world, things are a lot easier for Charles, living a life of ease in the Westchester mansion in upstate New York that will eventually become the school for "gifted" children. He has been awakened during the night and finds someone who looks like his mother in the kitchen, suspicious since she doesn't cook. It turns out of be the shape-shifting Raven ("Winter's Bone's" Jennifer Lawrence), then just a little, lost blue girl.
In short order (though not short enough): Charles is teaching at Oxford, Erik is scouring Argentina for Shaw, Shaw is in his Vegas gentlemen's club with diamond-queen Emma Frost (January Jones) trying to force Colonel Hendry (Glenn Morshower) to help with Shaw's Bay of Pigs scheme, while new CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, who is proving to be a versatile actress) strips down to black, lacy nothings to go undercover.
It's a frenzied pace, but when Vaughn does slow things down, good things begin to surface. The excellent McAvoy ("Atonement," "Last King of Scotland") is a total charmer as the young genius already dedicated to protecting and forgiving the human race. The intense Fassbender (a darkly romantic Rochester in "Jane Eyre") opens a window into Erik's pain as well as his need for friendship. The actors play off each other in ways that make their emotional connection palpable. But before it can develop into something truly meaningful, the story is off and running again to a Russian outpost or the special CIA MIB compound run by Oliver Platt's MIB (stands for man in black suit, a.k.a. men in black, get it?).
McAvoy, Fassbender and Bacon, continuing his good work streak, are a potent mutant trio locked in an escalating series of good-versus-evil battles. Those fights involve all sorts of large-scale special effects — the digital overseen by John Dykstra ("Spider-Man" and others); the physical created by Chris Corbould ("Inception" and more). Though he's given a lot of massive action sequences to play with, cinematographer John Mathieson ("Gladiator") makes the smaller, more intimate moments the most affecting. Sprinkled between the big and small are a series of clever nods to "X-Men's" cinematic past lives and lore that are tongue in cheek, cleverly done and sure to be crowd pleasers.
Less pleasing are all the other mutants who will have to choose sides, a swath of young Hollywood talent badly squandered including Lawrence's Raven, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havoc (Lucas Till) and the list goes on. As does the film, a tedious two-plus hours. There were such possibilities in the origins idea. Maybe if filmmakers had slipped on Cerebro, that mystical mind-enhancing, metal helmet, for a bit; it seemed to help everyone else.