June 6, 2011 -- In yet another prequel (the first one was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) Marvel Comics squeezes more money out of its very profitable X-Men franchise with a storyline that is set in the 1960s, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Unlike the last film this is a full-blown origins story explaining how the X-Men came to be, their relationship with the world's governments and each other.
In this story, the mutations of the X-Men are caused by radiation from atomic bombs. This was not the case in the previous film, where similar mutations occurred more than 100 years prior to the invention of atomic weapons and atomic power, but then these mutations don't conform to science, or logic anyway. Mutations lead to incremental changes over many years, not spontaneous, fully developed super powers.
If you have seen the previous X-Men movies, you will find little that is new here. The powers of the mutants are the same, or very similar to those seen before. The motivations are also the same, altruism (the X-Men group) versus those bent on evolutionary war (gangs of mutants against humanity). This film fleshes out these themes a bit more. Exposition includes mention of evidence that in the not-so-distance evolutionary past human beings violently eliminated the Neanderthals and other competing human types, clear precedence for the war between humans and mutants. There are also some references to current politics in the film, including the “Don't ask, don't tell” policy and abuses related to the endless “war on terrorism.”
Some well-known actors appear in this film, including James McAvoy as Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart in the other four films). McAvoy has been in such critically-acclaimed films as “The Last King of Scotland” and “Atonement.” Kevin Bacon plays a new character, Sebastian Shaw, who, along with Xavier were both born before the atomic age, just for the record. Bacon, in addition to being separated by only a few degrees from all of us, is a prolific actor who has won numerous awards over his long career. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young Raven in this film (a character played by Rebecca Romijn in the other X-Men films). Lawrence was nominated for a best actress academy award for her great performance in last year's “Winter's Bone.” Longtime actor Oliver Platt (“2012,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “Please Give”) plays a sort of Man in Black, running a secret CIA operation with mutant operatives. Michael Fassbender (“Jane Eyre”) plays a young Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (a role played by the great Ian McKellen in previous X-Men films).
The main characters in the film are Xavier and Magneto, the opposite sides of the war-against-mankind coin. The story begins at the same point as the first X-Men film does, with Lehnsherr being separated from his family in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He is then mentored by Shaw, who also becomes his greatest enemy. Shaw is a powerful mutant who can both absorb great amounts of energy and dispense that energy in destructive ways. His power is equal to that of Magneto, perhaps greater. Shaw heads up his own team of mutants in a kind of mercenary group loosely tied to the Soviet Union. Xavier and Magneto join the CIA group and recruit other mutants to counter Shaw's threat. The whole battle comes to a head at the blockade line during the Cuban Missile crisis with the very existence of mankind in peril.
The characters are well-drawn and the story is compelling. The acting is solid and the special effects and action scenes are well-done. This is a worthy addition to the ever-growing X-Men franchise, now in its 11th season. This film rates a B.
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