Having produced three parts of the X-Men story, the plan was evidently to see about spin-offs and go back to the beginning. The first one was Wolverine which, although relatively solid, didn’t hit all the notes with the critics. The next plan was a bit more ambitious, to consider the origins of the great figures of the story in Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr – the birth of the X-Men themselves. Would this fare out any better than Wolverine?
The story recaps the opening scene of the first X-Men movie where the boy Erik Lensherr and his parents are taken prisoner in the concentration camps of the Nazi regime. Erik’s powers are evident though as yet not at their full in anguished cry for his mother. This arouses the interest of a German scientist who happens to be a mutant himself called Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who goes to extreme lengths to get Erik to manifest his powers. Meanwhile at a swish mansion in America the boy Charles Xavier comes across a runaway mutant girl with the ability to shift her shape to any person she thinks of. Scared and on the run, Raven is welcomed by Charles and the two grow to live like brother and sister.
From there we come to the early 1960’s and the adult Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) who is on the search for Shaw and is uncompromising in the steps he’ll take to hunt him down. Meanwhile Shaw is scheming to start an atomic war that will obliterate humans, but leave mutant-kind to rule. He is joined by his Hellfire club made of notable mutants chiefly the telepath who can also become pure crystal, Emma Frost (January Jones). The plan involves corrupting an American military official, which tips off the CIA through the agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), and her witnessing the Hellfire Club’s methods gets her to get an expert on mutants in the form of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).
Sufficiently convincing the CIA of a need to chase Shaw, Xavier first comes across Lensherr as the latter makes his first attempt to get Shaw. It fails, but not before Xavier convinced Lensherr to go along with him. There then follows a race to get a team set up to combat Shaw and his crew to avert the planned world war. Will they be able to do so when the Hellfire Club also exerts its influence within the core of this team?
The film picks up on the themes that made the initial X-Men movies so interesting. Being different, being isolated because of the difference, feeling comfortable in your own skin, the battle to establish your own identity, the quest for fitting in or being unique and expecting society to accept you. This is particularly well played out in the dynamic between Lensherr, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).
In terms of setbacks, the film suffers from a similar problem to some of the X-Men films in having too many characters to introduce sufficiently to allow us to have interest in them. This is especially exacerbated by the fact that the film still centres around the core relationship of Lensherr and Xavier. McAvoy and Fassbender are strong actors in their own right and threaten to hog all the limelight by the weight of their performances. Bacon can more than handle himself as the malevolent Shaw, Jones exudes beauty and charm as Frost, and the development of the Raven character who will be Mystique is also well conceived and pulled off by Lawrence. Beyond them the characters have a task to leave a proper lasting impression.
This is no slight on the story, though, which does a superb job in highlighting issues, introducing the two main characters and giving the basis on which the relationship and close friendship hits an irrevocable impasse. The action is brilliant, use of special effects is masterfully done and the pacing of the piece doesn’t suffer because of the good performances and the shift from action to action scene.
This is a worthy addition to the other origin movies for super-heroes.