X-men goes Mad Men. And I don’t just say that because January Jones is in the film. This is a franchise prequel set in the 1960’s, before Professor X was bald, or paralyzed. Before, in fact, he was Professor X. Just Charles Xavier.
Xavier (James McAvoy) is an Oxford lecturer, someone who is studying mutants (including himself) just as mutant powers seem to be emerging across the globe. His nemesis is Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a Nazi-collaborating scientist in the same field of mutant studies, the man who originally trained Erik Lehnsherr — the boy who will become Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The training was cruel, and now the adult Lehnsherr is searching the globe to find Shaw, and kill him. Meanwhile, CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) discovers Shaw is not only double-dealing with both the Americans and Russians, but he has a gang of mutants who are helping him in his evil plot to make the Cold War hot. The CIA, Xavier and Lehnsherr team up to stop Shaw, recruiting a bunch of young mutants like Darwin, Banshee, Angel and Havok.
I’m not qualified to say much how the story here differs from the canonical comic book version. I’m told Moira McTaggart and Banshee are both “very Scottish” in their paper forms. In any case it’s entirely in continuity with the previous X-Men movie trilogy, with the exception that a different boy played young Magneto (in a shot-for-shot identical opening) and that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have substituted for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen with digital age reduction.
Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn with story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer — pause to breathe — do a good job of telling a story along with the requisite backstory. I was surprised how developed the character of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) was and heartened that the film did nod to racial and gender issues of the time (in passing, as the series Mad Men often does). The male baddie, Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon), sees no problem asking the incredibly powerful telepath Emma Frost to refill his drink, there’s a good girl.
Not that the film isn’t mostly kick-ass mutant training montages and battle action. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) handles that just fine, if sometimes graphically. I couldn’t believe a film with shockingly violent images like that of CIA agents being dropped from the sky and splattering on the buildings below was rated PG-13.
A lot of the effects look obviously digital, but will probably hold up to the decade-old standard of the original X-men movie, so it may actually work fine for future generations watching these films in story-sequence. If anything robs this film of narrative power, it is the lack of suspense given that we know where we’re headed. Still, there’s room for a few more prequels in between. I wouldn’t mind seeing them go even further down the Mad Men line…
Imagine, late 60’s, a handsome mutant who is creative director of a New York ad agency. Or how about a different genre? What would The Godfather be like with mutants? Or The Graduate? Or Porky’s?