Review – X-Men First Class

One of my initial intentions for this site was to write film reviews. For reasons unknown, when viewing a film I find myself developing my impressions in the language of a review. I have yet to deliver on that promise in any real way, and although this is an inauspicious film to start with, I find that I am more apt to find the words with which to review a film right after I’ve seen it.

So, X-Men First Class.

Right around the time X-Men 3 (or X3: The Last Stand depending on how sensitive to marketing you are) was about to be released, the folks at Marvel Studios were coming up with ways to extend the X-Men brand beyond the numbered trilogy. X-Men 2 had been a huge success and, by the looks of things, the third film was poised to top it (we know how that turned out). A series of origin films was conceived then, titled appropriately enough: X-Men Origins.

X3 made a lot of money at the box office, but professional reviews were middling and fan reaction was worse. Justifiably, that film was deemed the black sheep of the trilogy. Nevertheless, Marvel moved forward with the first X-Men Origins film, Wolverine, and planned to make one about Magneto as well. But X-Men Origins: Wolverine was met with an even worse response than X3 (possibly due to its crappiness), and Marvel was back to the drawing board.

As Hollywood’s jaded and uncreative studio heads are apt to do, they decided to go for reboot. Although surprisingly they don’t seem to be throwing that term around too much with regards to First Class. This is not just the story of Magneto but of Professor Charles Xavier as well. The original X-Men film trilogy constantly alluded to a very interesting relationship between these two characters – one that suggested a high level of mutual respect undone by conflicting world views. It was fascinating to see this in the brief scenes they shared in these films, as they matched wits over games of chess. It’s material that deserves its own film.

Things were off on the right foot with director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and the two principal leads, James McAvoy as Xavier and Micheal Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors were excellent choices, given that they both have credibility, are at relatively early stages in their careers, and have experience with action. McAvoy starred in 2008’s Wanted and Fassbender was in Inglorious Basterds, in a brief but memorable role as British spy Archie Hicox. I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass quite a bit, though I put it in the category of “almost awesome”. And wouldn’t you know it? I feel the same way about X-Men First Class.

There are truly excellent scenes in First Class. The brief Holocaust sequence that started the first X-Men film and introduced us to Magneto is expounded upon here, and lends a nice feeling of dark severity to the film. It also introduces us to the film’s villain, Sebastian Shaw, played by a slightly hammy Kevin Bacon. I feel the setup of this film is its strongest part – zipping around the world from Poland to Argentina to Cambridge to Las Vegas, ping-ponging between the journeys of Magneto, on his revenge mission, and Charles Xavier working his way up to professor of genetics. There’s an early scene in which Magneto (sorry, Eric Lensherr at this point) successfully tracks down two former Nazis at an Argentinian bar. It’s highly reminiscent of Inglourious Basterds with the setting, the tension, and the German dialogue – one wonders if this similarity was intentional, and it’s fantastic. It shows Magneto at his most ruthless, hungry for retribution. Seeing the character in this light adds more dimension to the Magneto we’re used to from the other X-Men movies as portrayed by Ian McKellan.

James McAvoy is also great at the future Professor X, although I found him slightly too petulant and cocksure at times, especially at the pub downing yard glasses and picking up on women by complimenting their “groovy” mutations.* He settles into his mentor role very well throughout the rest of the film, though.

*A side note here: This film takes place in the 60’s, but like many films that take place in the recent past, the setting is not entirely convincing. Some clothing and technology was made to recall that era, while other aspects like hairstyles are firmly planted in the 2000’s. This didn’t bother me much because, as I mentioned before, so many films fail to convincingly portray recent decades.

But for all the excellent scenes, there are still plenty of cheesy moments that take us out of the film and remind us that we’re watching not just a comic book movie, but an entry to a franchise that already has four movies under its belt. There are numerous ham-fisted references to the future story, references that come off just a little too force-fed. We all know where this is going – there’s no need to spell it out for us with inane dialogue like this exchange between Xavier and a fairly unnecessary character:

“We’re still employed by the CIA – we’re G-men.”
“No…. you’re something more….”
(Right you’re not G-men you’re X-men just like the name of the movie)
“You’re your own team…..”
(Yep, we got it, X-Men)
(Annnnd there it is)

Plus, we all know Professor X will end up bald at some point. I don’t think we needed TWO references to his future baldness in the same film.

Every X-Men film ran the risk of cramming in too many characters to stay coherent, and First Class is no different. This couldn’t just be the Professor X and Magneto show (although I would have been fine with that). They had to shoehorn in a slew of other mutants to pad things out, otherwise we wouldn’t have had much of a “class”. Enter pointless characters such as the teenaged, mop-topped ginger Banshee, whose power is a super loud scream, a blonde pretty boy called Havok who makes weird red energy rings fly around and might be the father of the future Cyclops, and a girl who has insect wings and spits fireballs (unrelated dual powers – my biggest X-Men pet peeve). The villain Sebastian Shaw also has his own team of mutants that similarly fail to capture our attention, including January Jones as Emma Frost, who can turn her skin to diamond.

She can also read minds. Damnit.

All these characters are destined to culminate in an epic final battle wrapped around an alternate history of the Cuban Missle Crisis, in which Sebastian Shaw deliberately orchestrates a conflict between the U.S. and Russia in order to bring about nuclear war. Something about radiation being good for mutants…. I don’t know. He was more threatening as a simple Nazi scientist fascinated by the powers of mutation. Meanwhile we see the relationship between Xavier and Magneto become further and further strained, as it’s clear they differ vastly in their opinions about the possibility of mutants and normal humans co-existing. And then there’s Mystique, seemingly out of place given the time period but later explained in a brief ret-con, struggling with her insecurity about her true appearance and, to be brutally honest, looking quite a bit rounder than the Rebecca Romijn version. I’m aware of the irony of that statement.

All in all, Matthew Vaughn delivers another almost-awesome movie. There’s a good meaty story here, and some truly spectacular scenes, but it’s tempered by character clutter and an over-insistence on reminding us that the other X-Men movies exist. It’s hard to believe, but this is actually the second best X-Men movie among all five. It doesn’t come close to X2, but it’s better than the uneven first film, considered the first of the modern comic book movies, and it’s obviously heads above X3 and Wolverine.

There are rumors that Marvel is planning to turn this film into its own trilogy, and while I’m not at all surprised by that, I hope they don’t, because the series is already starting to get too tied down by its own timeline. They’ve introduced far too many characters already, and the spots where the various films don’t quite sit flush with each other are becoming more apparent. James Mangold has been attached to direct the next Wolverine movie – I’m curious to see how that turns out.

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