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Entries in X-Men: First Class [2011] (1)

Saturday
Jun042011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Finally, a Kick-Ass X-Men Movie!

Let's get this out of the way: Fuck continuity.  It's my policy not to read other critics' reviews of a film before I've had a chance to see it, but I love reading the comments sections of movie forums.  And the Internets are ablaze with angry fanboys decrying Matthew Vaughn's butchering of their beloved comic-book story lines in his exceptional prequel, X-Men: First Class.  Small details like Emma Frost (January Jones) debuting in the comics in 1979--making her an anachronism in First Class's 1963-set story--have caused nerds' heads to explode the world over.

I've got news for you, kids: Unless Fox and Marvel Studios can guarantee profits on a nineteen-picture, multi-billion-dollar, thirty-year franchise, there's no way to bring all of your precious, convoluted (and often contradictory) canon to the silver screen.  Summer blockbusters are designed for people who don't read, and who like for their picture stories to move. Let it go, and enjoy the show.

Since we're confessing sins here (I promise, an actual review is on its way), let me also say that I hold the minority opinion on the X-Men film series.  I think Bryan Singer followed his decent 2000 hit with a bloated, insular sequel;  X-Men Origins: Wolverine was just kind of sloppy, but not a total abomination; and Brett Ratner's X3: X-Men United was the best of the bunch.  I know, I know; that's blasphemy.  But in my opinion, X3 did two things that the previous two movies didn't: It told an epic story in under two-and-a-half hours and finally imbued the series with a global sense of scale.  Singer's movies, like the ain't-it-dead-yet Harry Potter franchise, both felt like they took place in two locations, and that the "world" that hated and feared its heroic mutants barely extended beyond Westchester, New York.

After more than a decade, Matthew Vaughn has finally gotten this series right.  I shouldn't be surprised that the guy who made what I consider to be the best comic-book movie ever has also made the second best.  With 2010's Kick-Ass, Vaughn brought Mark Millar's cracked-skulls-and-costumes miniseries to life in a film that both deconstructed the medium and plunged audiences into the ridiculous, four-color world that hooked many of us as kids.  First Class isn't as self-aware, but it feels more like a comic and successfully blends action, intrigue and political themes into what feels like two hours of a four-part story arc.

Vaughn and co-screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman tell the story of how psychic millionaire genius Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) met metal-bending Holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) in 1963.  Erik's hunt for former Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) lands him in the middle of Charles's burgeoning relationship with the CIA, who've recently discovered A) the existence of mutants and B) an apparent Russian plot to use Cuba as a launching pad for nuclear weapons. Shaw plans to initiate World War 3, emerging as leader of a new super race after mankind has blown itself up.

Unlike most big-cast superhero movies, First Class manages to stuff about twenty important characters into its story without sacrificing coherence or momentum. The creators do a marvelous job of establishing a few key relationships, stacking on a few more, and then closing out the film with a grand-scale, climactic battle in which everyone in the audience knows each of the characters well enough to care about what they're fighting for.  The main bond, of course, is that of Charles and Erik, which we've seen play out in other installments; but McAvoy and Fassbender bring such life to the roles that we could just as well watch them play chess for two hours as don costumes to save/destroy the world.

Charles acts as the older brother Erik never had, a steady hand who tries to temper his homicidal vengeance.  On the other side of that coin is Shaw, a complex, evil bastard who is at once Erik's sworn enemy and--in a tragic turn of events--his inspiration.  I haven't seen a villain this integral to both a comic-book movie's plot and its main characters' psyches since The Dark Knght's Joker.  The credit for this can be equally divided between the screenwriters and Kevin Bacon, who has never been this awesome in a movie, ever.  His Shaw is neither a fool nor a sniveling coward hiding behind other mutants. He's a genuine, vicious bad-ass with charisma and a master plan; and the actor's menacing grin looks like something straight out of a comic book, especially underneath his psychic-proof helmet (the helmet, by the way, is one of the coolest plot points I've seen in awhile; a real treat for fans of the series).

The third big relationship in First Class is between Charles and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned, shape-shifting mutant who will eventually become villainess Mystique.  In a surprising twist, we learn that she and Charles grew up together as unofficial siblings.  Raven's sass and free-spirit inform Charles's character in ways we didn't see in the earlier (later?) films.  McAvoy's Charles is a boozy, over-confident womanizer who loves to party; there's no sign of the reserved Patrick-Stewart-in-waiting until the very end of the film.

One of the movie's greatest achievements is making Raven/Mystique interesting.  In other X-Men movies, we've seen glimpses of her insecurity, but as played by Rebecca Romijn, she was given little more to do than seduce and betray men and compel fanboys to look for seams in her nude-body makeup.  By casting Oscar-nominated wunderkind Lawrence, the filmmakers rocket Mystique from third-stringer to serious contender.  Lawrence embodies all the sex of Romijn, but more pathos and empathy than most characters who've appeared in the franchise.  Her relationship with government scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult)--who wants to develop a serum that will eliminate all aesthetic evidence of mutanthood--drives the movie as much as the missile-crisis storyline.

With all this juicy drama unfolding, it's easy to forget that X-Men: First Class is also about training mutants to be heroes.  We get a new freak roster on both sides of the good/bad divide, and Vaughn excels at balancing the heavier tone of the main plot with the story's more whimsical aspects--like the training montage and 1960s-spy-movie antics of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne).  Despite some downer themes, First Class is a tremendous amount of fun. We bounce from New York and Poland in the 40s to Moscow, Miami, and other exotic locales in the 60s. This film has a wider scope and more streamlined sense of intrigue than any of the previous X-films. I typically tune out while watching summer-action-movie climaxes, but by the end of First Class, I was heavily invested, entertained, and satisfied.

The movie isn't without its problems, though. There are two big ones: The first is Magneto's costume reveal at the end.  Michael Fassbender cut such a confident, imposing figure throughout the film that to see him in what looked like a dime-store Halloween helmet and bunched-up bolt of red fabric was a real let-down (I guess I should mention the inconsistent makeup job on both Raven and Beast, too; maybe Fox blew that portion of the practical-effects budget on airfare and catering).

This is small potatoes compared to January Jones's "performance" as Emma Frost. From what little I know of the comics, Frost is a brilliant, formidable mutant.  She can read minds and turn her skin into diamonds.  Jones plays her as a Victoria's Secret model shooting a prolonged camera test.  Her stare is as blank as her white costumes, and her line delivery makes my voice mail operator sound like Dame Judy Dench.  I get that she's both eye candy and a recognizable enough name to put on a poster, but did Vaughn and company not see her appalling missed-cues-and-cue-cards hosting gig on Saturday Night Live a couple years ago?

Setting aside these nitpicks, I have no complaints about First Class.  Matthew Vaughn has shot the bar for this brand of comic-book movie straight into the stratosphere.  For once, I can't wait to see another X-Men movie.

Note: For those skeptics who still think this film looks like kiddie stuff, I can assure you that Vaughn pushes the boundaries of his PG-13 rating.  From a fabulous F-bomb dropped by an even more fabulous cameo player, to the jolting violence of Nazi helmets imploding and G-men falling from the sky like bird shit, there's enough edge here to satisfy even the most jaded spandex-epic haters.