I have been able to get over the mental prohibition against seeing movies while on vacation, rather than always feel like I have to be DOING or SEEING something. Especially when in Fort Lauderdale, where all there really is to do is go to the beach, shop, or cruise for gay sex. I mention this because of what I was greeted by upon entering the theater, wondering if this were somehow targeted to a place like Florida (as opposed to say, New York), which was a commercial for joining the Army, tied into the new X-Men movie we're about to see. It makes the argument that X-Men are heroes with special abilities, and YOU can be a hero with special abilities if you join the Army. Okay, we're all used to things like this by now and think nothing of it, but if you step back for a second and think about it: isn't that really messed up? It's a bit like that pre-movie commercial of about ten years back that implied that if you join the Marines, you will leap through whirling blades in Matrix-like slow motion, then slay a giant fiery beast with a sword. Making matters worse, they showed the X-Men Army commercial first, then a regular Army commercial, then the X-Men Army commercial AGAIN, then the regular Army commercial again. I can only wonder how many times they played before I entered the theater.
Okay, so I have to say I was more than nonplussed about this movie. Superhero movies are wearing out their welcome, and the trend of making prequels with younger versions of the characters we know strikes of a teen-aimed marketing ploy. So, blow me down to discover that not only is this a genuinely great popcorn movie, but it easily leaps to stature as the very best of the series, and is the rare sort of movie you walk out of saying "Holy Shit! That was SO UNBELIEVABLY GOOD!
We open with pretty much the same opening from the first X-Men movie. Future Magneto Erik is separated from his parents at the Nazi concentration camps. A little display of his powers is overseen by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, who pulls him aside and wants him to demonstrate his powers, but the little tyke can't do it unless angry. So Shaw shoots his mother in front of him. This makes Erik go apeshit and kill everyone and raise a major ruckus, but he leaves Shaw alone? One of the few false notes of the movie, but we DO need a villain, and finding and hunting Shaw becomes Erik's quest throughout the film.
Meanwhile young Charles Xavier meets a young Mystique in his kitchen. She's a poor and hungry mutant, and he takes her in. Before you blink an eye he has aged into the perfectly-cast James McAvoy, and she's the less-great Jennifer Lawrence. We can tell that she has a crush on him, and we're supposed to understand that she's quite a bit younger though they seem only like two years apart. Soon he achieves his professorhood, at which point he is recruited by the always-welcome Rose Byrne as a CIA agent who knows that Shaw is working with the Russians (did I mention that this is taking place in the 60s?) and plotting all sorts of evil. The movie basically imagines that the Cuban Missile Crisis was engineered by Shaw as a power ploy, and that it's resolution was actually the result of a giant mutant showdown.
Okay, I'll leave the rest of the plot for you to discover. Let's hit the overalls. For the most part, the casting is just perfect. McAvoy has the sensitivity, acting chops and most importantly soulfulness that makes him a plausible young Professor X. Michael Fassbender has the more challenging role, for he has to make us sympathize with Magneto's perspective and how it resulted in his later villainy. Ian McKellen is wonderful, of course, but his role in the earlier movies was pretty much just cackling villain. Oh okay, a bit more shaded, but you know what I mean. Fassbender brings a lot of soul to Erik, and it also doesn't hurt that he's quite pleasant to look at. I was a little bummed by the end when he finally puts his Magneto hat on, as it covers up that sweet face. It's also great to finally see their early friendship and how intimately involved they were with each other. The movie makes it out that Xavier had a large role in helping Erik channel and use his powers, which adds resonance to their later parting of ways.
In fact, the movie does a great job all around of coloring in the earlier stories and details that were established by the time of the movies that take place later, in a way that does exactly what prequels are supposed to do: gain and give resonance to what you already know about these characters. You see the beginnings of mutants coming to realize there are other like themselves out there, the origins of the X-Men's jet, the origins of cerebro, how they all got their nicknames, the establishment of Professor X's school, all the way to how Xavier got into his wheelchair and his parting of ways with Magneto. Along the way we have a laugh-getting cameo by Hugh Jackman and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by the delightful Rebecca Romijn. For the most part all of it works beautifully, merges seamlessly and without forcing into the action of the other films, and avoids (mostly) the tendency to have too-pat or cute explanations that would just make you roll your eyes. I see that the story is co-credited to Bryan Singer, so surely that has something to do with it. We see pretty much every aspect of the later-period movies explained, and my only complaint is: if we had only known the movie was going to be this good, I would have been happy to spread it all out and have the separation of X and Magneto be the culmination of movie three in a prequel trilogy.
One small complaint is that the movie goes a tad overboard in its portrayal of women as sexual objects. It stands out mostly because it is so unnecessary. First, we discover that Rose Byrne's CIA agent just happens to wear a full compliment of Victoria's Secret-style under her everyday wear. I happen to have a friend who works in the bra industry, and he assures me that almost NO women in reality wear that kind of stuff as everyday wear. Byrne is able to join a bevy of similarly-attired women who are explicitly presented as high-end prostitutes to be used as the toys of powerful men. Even Jennifer Jones as Emma Frost, while presented as a powerful woman, has to run and fetch ice for the drink of her boss. The strangest touch is when a young mutant must be trained to control his destructive force by aiming it at and blowing up three mannequins. So, uh, why is it necessary that the mannequins that he VIOLENTLY BLOWS UP be of three shapely nude women in somewhat provocative positions?
One other tiny thing, which will only make sense once you've seen the movie, is that the climax flirts dangerously with comedy when you have one too may rounds through: THE MISSILES ARE COMING! Oh, no, they're going. BUT WAIT! THEY'RE COMING! Oh, false alarm, no, they're going. OH MY GOD! THEY'RE COMING AG--oh wait, no--LOOK!--oh...
Other than that, it's all just really fun and best of all, not stupid. These are real characters and they're all given compelling arcs that work together and don't seem forced. The special effects are sprinkled throughout, but never overcome the story. At the end there is a submarine thrown onto the beach of an island, and for once it actually seems to have weight. The is a touch of the James Bond villain to Shaw--Kevin Bacon is obviously having the time of his life--that makes him, and his outrageous secret lair, all quite fun. It's a blast, it doesn't insult you, it's involving, it's moving, it's epic in scope... It's everything a summer popcorn movie hopes to be and I'm not ashamed to say I spent the ten minutes after it was over saying "My God, I just can't believe how good that was."
If you like summer popcorn movies done right.