How does an X-Men movie set in 1962 without Wolverine work?
You could posit it’s because of the cast. Michael Fassbender rivets as Erik Lensherr, a holocaust survivor bent on revenge. Jennifer Lawrence conjures the right combination of vulnerability and sexuality in her role as Raven/Mystique, and James McAvoy charms as Charles Xavier.
Or, you could say it takes a cue from The Dark Knight, and grounds everything in a plausible reality. Costumes? Nope, they’re flight suits designed to withstand G-forces. Super powers? Nope, they’re mutations, a natural part of evolution accelerated by the atomic age. Super villains? Nope, just a sociopath championing disenfranchised outcasts.
Or, you could say it takes a cue from Mad Men and outfits everyone in retro-trendy clothes and lends otherwise boring sets an art déco flair.
But, for me, it works because of a single scene. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of young mutants—some still teenagers—have just saved the world from nuclear war. The U.S. and Soviet naval fleets—moments ago ready to wipe each other from the face of the earth—recognize these mutants pose a larger threat and agree to unleash a barrage of missiles. Lehnsherr, a holocaust survivor who’d witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of Nazis, steps forward and halts the barrage mid-air. His gaze hardens as turns the artillery back toward the fleets.
Xavier, realizing Lehnsherr’s intentions, pleads with him: “That’s enough, Erik! There are hundreds of people aboard those ships. Innocent people just following orders!”
Erik turns to Charles, “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders… never again!”
Thus begins the split between Erik and Charles, one that culminates with the mutants choosing sides, some departing with Erik, some remaining with Charles. It’s a powerful scene that left me wondering: would I have gone with Erik… or stayed with Charles?
And that’s why this movie works. (And I’m hoping the Blu-ray commentary explains why Fassbender reverts to his native Irish accent during the finale.)