X-MEN: FIRST CLASS Review:
- Fanboys will debate from now until the end of eternity what they thought of the original trilogy of X-Men movies. While the second film is generally held up as one of the all-time greatest superhero movies, there's a lot of, shall we say, differences of opinion on the first and third. Personally, I've never quite understood the conventional wisdom regarding the series. Personally, I enjoyed the much-maligned X-Men 3 as much if not more so than the previous two movies - certainly more than Part 1. I grew up reading the occasional X-Men comic book and was a devoted viewer of the 90's-era Saturday morning cartoon. I liked my X-Men over-the-top, colorful, and science-fiction-y. I understood that the whole stuggle of mutants versus humans could be used as a metaphor for the sturggles of other minorities in the real world, but to me that was always just one layer of the X-mythos. The other layers were comprised of the soap-operatic, heavily-serialized storylines of writers like Chris Claremont, who sent the X-Men to space, through time, to other realities. The X-Men I loved as a kid had the biggest personalities, the wildest origins, the most elaborately gaudy costumes (thank you, Jim Lee) of any other superheroes out there. And so, as much as I enjoyed Bryan Singer's muted, more realistic version of the famed mutants (particularly the more epic-feeling, better-written X2), I also never really loved those movies outright. X3, though cheesy at times, also had a more anything-goes type of feel - big action, more color. Hell, it had Kelsey Grammar as Beast in the part he was basically born to play. So sure, X3 was far from perfect, but I enjoyed it. But, even though I am an apologist for that Brett Ratner-directed film, I found virtually nothing to like in the wretched waste of time that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That movie sucked and sucked badly, and, I think helped to further drag the franchise down in the public eye. People were already skeptical after X3 (which again, was not that bad, in my opinion), but Wolverine may have nearly killed the golden goose. Nearly being the key word. Because The X-Men are a resillient bunch, and let's face it - people love 'em. And so, like the Phoenix (yep, I went there), the franchise rises from the ashes with a brand new prequel - X-Men: First Class. Not a reboot! Not a restart! But instead, a 1960's-set film that is clearly set in the same universe as X-Men 1-3 (obligatory continuity errors aside), and that looks to give the franchise a fresh injection of super-soldier serum (hey, same universe). The result? What First Class lacks in recognizable characters and big-name stars, it easily makes up for in the form of an awesome cast, an intriguing plot, and some badass action. Long story short, this is summer blockbuster moviemaking done right - a popcorn flick that adds high drama and serious intensity to the mix.
First Class takes us back to the swingin' 60's - a time when tensions were mounting between America and the Soviets, the times they were a-changin', and Professor X - then merely Charles Xavier - was still sporting a full head of hair. But first, the movie opens with an intense and chilling prologue set at a concentration camp in the midst of the Holocaust. A young Erik Lehnsherr is forced into a horrific situation at the hands of a sadistic scientist working with the Nazis - a man we'll later come to know as Sebastian Shaw. In this haunting opening, we see Erik endure the sort of traumatic torment and pain that will eventually lead him to become uber-villain Magneto. Meanwhile, we see a similarly young Charles Xavier in his Westchester estate, where he first encounters Raven - the blue-skinned shapeshifter who will one day be known as Mystique. The movie nicely sets up the contrast between Xavier and Erik - two very smart, very strong-willed men who each see their mutant powers as an opportunity to change the world. And as we flashforward to the 60's, where the duration of the movie is set, we watch as these two iconic figures first meet and become friends.
If you're at all familiar with X-Men, then you know where the story of Charles and Erik is headed. But what keeps things interesting - and what gives the movie much of its energy and momentum - is the relationship between the two, as brought to life by two great actors in James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Both actors really knock it out of the park, and really help to carry the film. As the younger version of the character that the great Patrick Stewart played in the original X-films, McAvoy surprised me with the wit and depth he brought to the eventual founder of the X-Men. It was a bit jarring to see the usually wise and zen-like Xavier portrayed as something of a sly smartass - smirky, cocky, a bit of a ladies man, even. But to McAvoy's credit, he evolves the character over the course of the movie. When all is said and done, he hasn't magically transformed into Stewart's wizened version of the character, but the groundwork has been laid. Fassbender, meanwhile, just flat-out owns as Erik. This, to me, was a huge, starmaking turn for the charismatic actor. I've seen him kick ass before in movies like Centurion, but here, Fassbender really steals the movie and, honestly, is neck and neck with Sir Ian McKellan in terms of the best version of Magneto. Fassbender is likable, charismatic, but also intense to the point of being scary. He really conveys the idea that Erik has a sort of righteous fury, but also that his darker impulses are being kept in check by the sanctity of his mission of revenge against his former tormentor, Sebastian Shaw. All through the movie, you have to wonder - once Shaw is dispensed with, then what? Well, we as X-Men fans know, but you wonder how longm, exactly, will Erik remain on the side of the angels. Not knowing exactly where this movie was headed, I admit that I was somewhat surprised at the answer. Suffice it to say, this was one hell of a performance from Fassbender - and in this version of Magneto he creates one of the most compelling comics-to-screen character transitions we've yet seen.
McAvoy and Fassbender alone are worth the price of admission, but luckily they're surrounded by a very good supporting cast. Jennifer Lawrence in particular is excellent as Raven / Mystique. Those who didn't see the superlative Winter's Bone will now get a hint of why she is an Oscar-caliber actress. Because, even though Mystique is perhaps a tad undwritten in the script, Lawrence brings that extra depth and vulnerability to the character to make her a standout. I was also really surprised by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. He did a fantastic job as the movie's main villain - convincing as both a Nazi collaborator in the movie's prologue, and later as an eternally youthful, James Bond-style villain.
First Class is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was famously supposed to have directed X3, before he backed out and was ultimately replaced by Brett Ratner. Many have long speculated what an X movie directed by Vaughn would look like, and now we have our answer. Sure, First Class is a lot smaller scale in some ways than the Phoenix Saga-riff X3 might have been, but still, this is another Vaughn movie that benefits from his knack for fast-paced plotting, bouncy pacing, humor and wit, and imaginative action scenes. Despite a long running time, First Class feels faster-paced than the first two X-movies, and overall it's a bit brighter, a bit more stylized - with a little bit of a 60's pop-art feel. A number of retro touches sometime make the movie feel like a modern-day take on The Avengers (the TV series, not the comic book).
However, where First Class falls short is in its handling of some of its less prominent characters. Second-stringers like Havok, Darwin, Riptide, and Banshee all felt pretty bland and mostly useless. Banshee got one or two cool scenes in which to show off his powers, but the other characters seemed like mere cannon fodder. Particularly noticeable was the very-rushed character arc for Angel - a seemingly interesting character who ends up the victim of very sudden and hasty-seeming plot twists. Same goes for Emma Frost - a great character from the comics who, played flatly by January Jones, is pretty much diamond-encrusted window dressing in the film, and another who is never given much in the way of motivation or character, despite being crucial to several key moments in the movie. Another example is Moira MacTaggert, an American agent who seems to develop a bit of a thing with Xavier. Rose Bryne did her best to make the character interesting, but ultimately, she was very forgettable. I don't know, I just found it disappointing that the movie managed to such a great job showing us the motivations of Xavier and Magneto, yet seemed to somewhat half-ass it when it came to many of the other featured characters. Finally, I thought the movie did in fact do a pretty nice job with Hank McCoy, aka Beast, in terms of giving him a meaningful character arc ... and yet ... I just didn't love the character as portrayed here by Nicholas Hoult. He looked the part when he eventually made his transformation into the furry blue braniac we all know and love from the comics and cartoons, but he just didn't feel like that same Beast in terms of personality. Beast always seemed professorial, confident - this just seemed like a different character.
One weird but fun thing about the casting ... the movie had a crazy number of great actors in even the smallest of roles. Oliver Platt as a CIA guy. Ray Wise (!) as a random givernment official. Hell, even AARON by-god PIERCE from 24 shows up at one point, and yes, folks, I shouted and pumped my fist in joy at the sight of him. Oh, there are also a couple of great little cameos that I won't ruin here. But I'll just say that one of 'em is so great that it substantially adds to my overall assessment of the film, with one of the great uses of the F-bomb in a PG-13 movie in quite some time, in a scene that will surely have audiences cheering.
I will also say that I liked a lot of the visual stylization in the film. All of the f/x work looked great for the most part, and there was a lot that was noticeably refined from the earlier films (Mytique's transformations, for example). I also thought a couple of the characters were just plain awesome looking - in particular the demonic Azazel, one of Shaw's right-hand baddies. Beast, Mystique, Angel ... all looked great and pleasantly comic book-y when in full mutant mode. Emma Frost's diamond form is the one mutant power that still looks super-wonky to me, but maybe that's just personal preference.
At the end of the day, I think people who go into this one skeptical will emerge very pleasantly surprised. The movie may not be a ripped-from-the-comics X-Men epic (and I'd still love to see a balls-to-the-wall, insane X-Men sci-fi epic, colorful costumes and all), but it is a pretty groovy, ripped-from-the-history-books look at a slightly altered version of the Cuban Missle Crisis and the very-real events that almost led to nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia back in the day. Seeing the MLK Jr. vs. Malcolm X-esque clash of ideals between Xavier and MAgneto play out in this setting is pretty fascinating, and the dynamite job that McAvoy and Fassbender do in bringing these characters to life only adds to the intensity of the story. I do think that the movie damn near achieves greatness, but falls just short due to all the Magneto and Xavier coolness being surrounded by too many other characters, plotpoints, and twists that feel a bit too bland, generic, and/or by-the numbers. But that doesn't stop the movie from being a hell of a ride while it lasts - certainly worthy of an "Excelsior!" or three.
My Grade: B+