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X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) review

June 4, 2011

 

written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn

produced by: Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner & Bryan Singer

directed by: Matthew Vaughn

rated PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image)

132 min.

U.S. release date: June 3, 2011

 

The X-Men film franchise had begun strong but wound up in dire straits after four films. It had a good start back in 2000 (“X-Men”), followed by a stellar sequel in 2003 (“X2″ X-Men United”). For the most part, those two films, directed by Brian Singer, equally pleased both the geeks and the non-comic book fans. Then came the bloated “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006, which took two classic stories from the comics, shredded them to pieces, and taped them together. It was helmed by Brett Ratner, while Singer flew off to bring Superman back to the big-screen. Neither of those movies fared well, and even though their box office was decent, they still fell short. Then came “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, which unintentionally turned out to be a disappointing joke.

I was ready to be done with the cinematic interpretations of the characters that hooked me into comics long ago. So then, how is it that I found myself just as excited for this new X-Men film, as I was when I stood in line at the screening for the first film eleven years ago?

Well, there are several reasons for my zeal. As a comic book geek, I want comic book movies to do well, but most of all to be made well. I want the filmmakers to take the material seriously (well, at least as serious as it demands) and be as passionate about it as the fans. Obviously (and understandably) that doesn’t always happen. Studios get in the way and not everything can translate very well on the big screen.

 

 

The best comic book movie to come out last year was Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”, so I was quite pleased when I learned that he would be helming a new X-Men movie. Although I had my reservations about it being a prequel, I was delighted to learn that it would take place in the sixties, with a focus on the friendship between a young Charles Xavier (who would become a powerful telepath, instructing mutants on how to control their powers) and Erik Lehnsherr (master of magnetism, and eventual foe of Xavier and his X-Men). When it was reported that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (two actors I admire) were cast to play these iconic characters, I was sold.

It also helped that Singer had returned as both producer and story contributor, bringing back the right tone and providing connective tissue to the first two movies. It was a good sign to also see that the writers of both “Thor” and “Kick-Ass” had aligned to write the film’s screenplay. With all those elements gathered together, I remained optimistic, keeping my reservations at the ready, knowing full well that anything can go wrong in a superhero movie. Well, the result is the most satisfying X-Men film since “X2”, one which could possibly resuscitate the franchise.

We already knew that Magneto’s scars stemmed from the horrors endured as a child in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, but in “First Class” we see where his rage and hatred for mankind specifically came from. We also see a young Xavier, waking up in the middle of the night to find a blue-skinned girl in his Westchester, New York mansion. Xavier is elated to learn that he is not alone, that there are others with special abilities like him.

Later, in 1962, Erik Lehnsherr (a commanding Michael Fassbender) is determined to track down those responsible for his torture and the murder of his mother, primarily the sadistic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, wonderfully evil), an egotistical power-absorbing mutant. Meanwhile, Charles (a charismatic James McAvoy) has spent time at Oxford, hanging out with his foster-sister, the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), while impressing the ladies with his superior intellect. These scenes appropriately invoke the 60’s spy films in art design and costumes, but also with McAvoy playing the womanizing bachelor and Fassbender playing a man bent on revenge.

It turns out Erik isn’t the only one looking for Shaw, C.I.A. operative Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is seeking him and the Hellfire Club (a high society group he leads) as well. She learns that Shaw is trying to provoke the Russians into a nuclear war with America and once she discovers there are strange powers involved, she seeks out someone who specializes in genetic mutation. It just so happens that is exactly what Charles, now a professor,  did his thesis on. After Charles and Raven unveil their powers, they convince Moira’s superiors to allow them to help her stop Shaw from instigating WWIII.

 

 

An enthusiastic agent (Oliver Platt) takes them to his District X facility, where they discuss plans to recruit other mutants. They will need them to take on Shaw and his team, which includes the diamond-skinned, telepath Emma Frost (a vapid January Jones), the red-skinned teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and another lackey (Álex González) who creates whirlwinds. Inevitably, their paths cross with Erik, who, in his attempt to kill Shaw almost kills himself.  But Charles saves him and soon the two develop a tentative friendship, despite their differing world views.  At District X, they meet a brilliant young teen named Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who has developed a mutant-finding device as well as a cure to make mutants normal in appearance.

With Hank’s help, Charles and Erik become globe-trotting recruiters, asking young mutants to join them. Together, they enlist Angel (Zoe Kravitz) who has organic wings and the ability to shoot fiery spitwads, Alex (Lucas Till) who wields cosmic energy, Antonio (Edi Gathegi) who can physical adapt to any situation, and Sean (Caleb Landry Jones), the kid with a sonic scream. It looks like they may have a team now, but as both the U.S. and the U. S. S. R. make their way near Cuba, will there be enough time to train these kids how to use their powers? How will Charles prepare them to save a world that doesn’t know about them yet, but will undoubtedly hate and fear them? And, as Erik becomes more and more frustrated, will Charles be able to prevent him from killing?

Like any X-Men movie, there are so many characters to keep track of, but somehow Vaughn doesn’t confuse us or leave us overwhelmed. The best part of what is done here is seeing McAvoy and Fassbender truly flesh-out their roles. They are both young, one is ambitious and one is angry,  but both are making mistakes.  McAvoy’s Xavier is hard to resist, his sincerity and faith in others shines through, but there’s also a level of arrogance. He truly cares to make a difference in the world, by working with governments and helping mutants control their abilities and feel accepted. On the flipside, Fassbender’s brooding Erik, has zero faith in humanity, yet he thought he was alone until he met Charles. So, bringing together his kind is the only thing these two have in common. There are friends and they admire each other, but they both know they will eventually reach an impasse.

 

 

By now, fans of the comics know to let go of their continuity knowledge in order to get any enjoyment out of these movies.  There’s bound to be characters miscast (Lawrence as Mystique?) or ones you really don’t like (Kravitz’s Angel), but you see their usefulness.  Vaughn fills the movie with an appropriate retro feel and a cold war vibe, but he excels in some of the more jaw-dropping action scenes. Seeing Erik destroy a giant luxury yacht by using its own anchor like whip, while bobbing next to it in water, was spectacular.  Seeing a blue and furry Hank McCoy (yes, that happens) fly the Blackbird for the first time and tighten his claws around Erik’s throat….well, those were pretty awesome scenes.

Still, there were moments in the middle where I felt somewhat bored.  Maybe it was one too many War Room scenes or it could’ve been that I’ve seen one too many training montages in my time. I’m not going to hold too much of that against the film since we do get to see great character actors, like James Remar, Matt Craven, and Ray Wise. But what stands out the most is the needed chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender. McAvoy is more familiar to people but this will bring Fassbender into the mainstream. That makes me happy, but I encourage you to catch his previous films too.

It’s amazing that a movie this good was done in such a short amount of time. Principal photography only began at the end of last August, after all.  That speaks well for the filmmakers as much as it does the actors involved. The film repeats the discomfort of being a mutant that we’ve seen in the other movies and that kind of melodrama helps to identify these mutants as outsiders.  Overall, Vaughn does well with the characters on-screen, displaying their powers and various personalities, but this is a superhero movie where the characterization is going to be more memorable than any fiery explosions.

The audience at the packed screening I attended was very receptive to what they saw. Cheering and laughing (especially at a well-placed cameo….no, it wasn’t Stan Lee) could be heard, which makes me believe that this prequel may also spawn other sequels. As long as McAvoy and Fassbender are back, I have no problem with more of what I saw here.

 

RATING: ***

 

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