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'X-Men First Class': Will superhero fans go for an idea-driven period piece?

June 3, 2011 |  9:16 pm

It worked for "Zelig," and helped make "Forrest Gump" a classic. But can the blending of 20th-century history with movie mythology do something similar for "X-Men: First Class"?

As it seeks to lure filmgoers this weekend, that's just one of the questions facing Matthew Vaughn's comic book movie, which among other things offers an alternate history of the Cuban missile crisis. (Check out the image above, from a Fox  promotional tie-in; all that's missing is McAvoy's Charles Xavier telling JFK he had one too many Dr Peppers.) After all, many in its target audience weren't glints in the eyes of their baby-boomer parents when President Kennedy took to the airwaves to warn of  impending nuclear threats.

As we explore in a print piece in The Times, "X-Men: First Class" may seem like ordinary summer entertainment. But like many of its characters, it conceals some significant quirks.

For starters, the  Xavier-Magneto film is an origin story but not a full-fledged prequel (since it covers some of the same territory alluded to in Bryan Singer's 2000 "X-Men"), a reboot that's also, but not totally, kind of a spin-off. As Fox production president Emma Watts says, "It's so funny that everybody wants to define movies these days -- a prequel, a reboot, an origin story. But every situation is unique. I wish I could give this a clear definition."

It also contains debates about the ethics of revenge not commonly found in a summer entertainment -- or, for that matter, in Vaughn's previous "Kick-Ass."

And it's a film that's trying to live within an existing superhero world while jumpstarting a new franchise, much as Christopher Nolan did with Batman back in 2005. "There's a lot in 'First Class' that harks back to early 'X-Men' films, but also has an energy that's new," said producer Bryan Singer, who came up with the concept for the new film. "You don't want to alter the essence, but you can alter the history."

The movie also has to make do without the leading-man presence of Hugh Jackman and instead try to attract filmgoers with acclaimed but less established actors such as McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. And it marshals them in the hope of achieving the formidable task of washing out the sour taste left in fans' mouths with the last pure 'X-Men" film, Brett Ratner's "X-Men: Last Stand" in 2006.

Still, the reviews thus far have been solid and the early box-office numbers are good.  A sprinkling of history and some morality debates may be, in the end, just what we want with our superheroes.

-- Steven Zeitchik



Critical Mass: X-Men First Class graduates with most critics' honors

With X-Men First Class, Fox tries a new mutation

Photo: A digitally altered image of McAvoy's Charles Xavier and John F. Kennedy from an "X-Men" app promotion. Credit: 20th Century Fox