June 12, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

The X-Men franchise has had something of a rocky history across its now five films. It is, obviously, based off of the family of X-comics from Marvel and is one of those sources that is both easy and difficult to adapt to the big screen. First, there is a host of colorful characters with fancy abilities that would all look fantastic on the big screen, but there are so many and you cannot have them all at the same time and how do you go abut condensing the nearly 50-years worth of history into a movie? That is not an easy task, and as we saw with X-Men: Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Both of those movies failed to tap into the rich comic history and instead tried the whiz-bang approach. With First Class we get a, ahem, first class film that brings us characters to go with the action.



X-Men: First Class was originally intended to be the second Origins film, focusing on Magneto. At some point during its development the focus shifted away from a purely Magneto film and instead chose to focus on the early years of mutantdom. It is a choice that made for a winning film and a more than successful reboot of the franchise. Although, I do have to say that I am not sure what the timeline is meant to be, if it is the same as the other films or if this is a new one. I kind of hope it is a new one, I would hate to see this franchise continue from here and get stuck trying to conform to the other films.

Matthew Vaughn, who had been on board for the third movie returns to the franchise on better terms and with Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two films, on board as producer and co-writer, the film had to be considered to be in good hands. I know I was looking forward to whatever they were going to give us, both men have vision and an understanding of how to make a good movie and while this film is not without its faults, it more than delivers.


The movie starts by showing us Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier as children at approximately the time their mutant abilities manifested themselves. In the case of Erik it was when his parents were taken from him and placed into a concentration camp during WWII and his anger revealed an ability to affect metal. A further event hinted at the extent to the power of this ability. As for young Charles, it came a bit earlier, but a chance meeting with a young Raven Darkholme (Mystique) showed he was not alone.

We pick the story up some years later with the Cold War in full swing. Erik (Michael Fassbender) is on the hunt for those responsible for the death of his mother in the concentration camp while Charles (James McAvoy) has proven himself to be something of a ladies man at Oxford. Little do they know they are already on a collision course. Their paths are adjusted by the presence of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), whose Hellfire Club is doing plenty of behind the scenes political maneuvering, and Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), a young CIA operative tracking Shaw. The backdrop to this drama is the building Cuban Missile Crisis, giving it some real world heft.


Of course, this is more than just the Xavier and Magnet show. More mutants get in on the fun including Shaw's recruits of Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel, and Riptide. On the other side we have Banshee, Havok, Beast, Darwin, and of course Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Not too many, not too few, a nice mix of big screen effect inducing powers and not too many as to crowd he screen for airtime.

This is how an X-Men movie should be made. It is is big and splashy with some nice effects-laden sequences as well as quieter and more subtle with time taken for character, not to mention an overall high quality cast. It is a movie that pays attention to detail and while is not a direct copy of the comic book origin, it has an internal logic that works and makes sense. This will hopefully be a springboard for future sequels.

I really liked how the relationship between Charles and Erik developed, it showed how they are two sides of the same coin. McAvoy and Fassbender brought plenty of subtlety and charisma to the role. In particular, Michael Fassbender was spot on as the man who would become Magneto. There was so much going on in his eyes and when he put the helmet on it just felt right. It also helps that Kevin Bacon is a delightful scene chewer as Shaw. Not to be left out, the other mutants, led by Jennifer Lawrence, were all solid and added some nice texture to movie.


Really, the biggest drawback of the film was January Jones as Emma Frost. She was a charismatic black hole, complete with dead eyes. She was just empty, emotionless, and just killed the momentum in any scene she is in. I would not mind seeing the role recast in the sequels.

Yes, this is a good movie, indeed. Vaughn directs with a steady hand, never overplaying his cards while ensuring there is enough visual pyrotechnics to keep all involved interested. It is a movie that plays out on a grand stage where nothing is subtle, yet contains enough subtlety to give us interesting characters that are needed to become truly invested. It is not a movie that will speak to the human condition or mean much in the grand scheme of things, but what it does do is entertain with intelligence.

Oh yes, there are a couple of fantastic cameos, be sure to keep an eye out for them. Also, stay through the credits, not for any extra scenes, but because the score is pretty darn good. And try to forget the bad marketing, terrible posters, and dull trailers they used to market it.

Recommended.


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