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Surely it won’t be worse than that Wolverine movie. Will it? – X-Men: First Class

June 4, 2011

Now we’ve come to the next course in this summertime smorgasbord of comic book movies, this entry not moving forward, but travelling back in time to a little decade called the ’60s. Unlike the other three big comic movies of the summer, this one isn’t centered on a fresh cinematic character, but is the fifth installment in a venerable franchise (is ten years venerable?), a return to the X-Well. Just to give you my enjoyment track record when it comes to the X-Universe, I liked the first, liked the second even more, thought the third wasn’t very good but was at times serviceable (at least it had team-wide, simultaneous action), and found the Wolverine entry to be a confused, bumbling waste of Hugh Jackman’s talents.

I had some concerns about this one. My knee-jerk reaction to it being a prequel wasn’t positive (George Lucas has made me pretty skittish about such things). The decision to have a lot of the focus centered on young teen mutant recruits, while logical, reeked of pandering to the Twilight crowd. Since we moviegoers are now apparently ruled by those goddamn people, I had to swallow that one and move on. Finally, many of the early promotional images were amateurish and positively dreadful, looking like they were entrusted to an intern hastily trained in Photoshop (see above).

Then the trailers came around and piqued my interest. Maybe X-Men: First Class would work after all. Maybe Bryan Singer returning (as the producer) to the franchise and teaming with Matthew (Kick-Ass) Vaughn, and throwing mutants into the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would re-inject some energy into the works.

Verdict?

To a degree, it does. I’d rank this one a bit ahead of the first in terms of overall quality (that’s a blunt comparison, but I’m just trying to give a general idea). Frankly, I enjoyed Thor more, but that may have had a lot to do with never having seen the Norse corner of the Marvel U. onscreen before. There’s not a great deal of new ground plowed in First Class, not a sin in a prequel, but an inescapable truth nonetheless. Others are going to disagree, and I don’t begrudge them their opinion, and please don’t get me wrong — I had a pretty good time watching this film. But I see a lot of gushing commentary about its quality, and I can’t get onboard to that degree.

Here’s some observations for you. I’ve tried to scrub the spoilers out of them, especially since I had one of the movie’s more joyous surprises ruined for me by an idiot reviewer.

  1. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan did excellent work in originating the roles of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (or Lensherr — I’m going with the spelling they have on IMDB), and we owe them a debt of gratitude for that, but James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender may surpass the output of their more aged predecessors. Seriously. They both bring a youthful energy to the characters that’s truly the best part of this entire film. McAvoy’s Xavier is a soft-spoken charmer, using his godly mental powers to gently influence and guide (sometimes coming across as a mind-reading Tony Robbins, sans the banana hands) while at the same time employing a physicality that we rarely associate with the wheelchair-bound Professor X. Fassbender’s Lehnsherr is the thoroughbred in this race. He brings the fire, the anger, the charisma that I’d always envisioned Magneto to possess. You fear him when he’s against you (especially if you’re an in-hiding former Nazi), but you want desperately for this man to be on your side. The film’s best moments are when the two share the screen. You believe their friendship. You believe that it pains the both of them that they can’t see eye to eye. And you understand why, in the earlier (or would that be later?) films, Xavier refused to give up on his old friend. Those two are the main reason to see this. I’d pay good money to watch another movie focused on them working together, but it doesn’t look promising that the inevitable sequel-to-the-prequel will recreate that dynamic.
  2. Kevin Bacon isn’t quite the Sebastian Shaw that we know from the comics (nor is the Hellfire Club for that matter), but that magnificent smoking jacket is in there, and so are the sideburns. I’ve always appreciated Bacon for his likability on and off the screen, and I enjoyed finally seeing him turn up in a comic book movie. Others may not respond to his performance, but I like the charming evil he brings to a super-powered guy who plots global destruction while hanging around on yachts, in nightclubs and aboard submarines.
  3. January Jones is eminently forgettable as Emma Frost, while Jennifer Lawrence does similar things with Mystique that McAvoy and Fassbender do with their characters (though not quite up to that level). She’s sort of the wild card between those two, a life-long friend to one but philosophically sympatico with the other. You clearly understand as the film comes to a close why she ends up with Magneto, and that adds a welcome layer to the character.
  4. Thanks to the endless retcons and reboots that the comics world has endured over the years, I’ll let the inconsistencies with ages and such in the previous films pass. There’s a painfully obvious use of ADR at one point to explain why Sebastian Shaw looks the same in 1944 and 1962, and you half-wish the filmmakers could have recorded something to account for why Frost is older here than she will be in the temporally later Wolverine. Perhaps she ages in reverse like Benjamin Button and Merlin. Or maybe they’re just shitcanning the last two movies.
  5. The pacing often seems a bit off. Sometimes things leap and rush along a bit too fast, and you wish the film would slow down and catch its breath. There’s something missing here, some ingredient that holds the film back from being one of those transcendently good comic book experiences. The narrative needs some more glue or baling wire to hold it together and bulk it up, more grist for the mill.
  6. There are a couple of cameos. One is guaranteed to make even the most jaded of souls smile.
  7. The young folks that make up the titular “First Class” try their best, and they’re not given tons of screen time, but they could be better. I may be off on this, but there were times when they were speaking and I thought “Did young people in the 1960s really talk and act this way?” I expected them to put earbuds in and start texting on their iPhones at any minute. That said, I did like the training sequences — especially Havoc’s and Banshee’s — in which they harness their strange, untamed abilities, and I also dug those nifty old-timey uniforms (though the best classic duds appear at the very end). And at least the kids were better developed than the henchmen baddies, who were simply a devilly Nightcrawler (Azazel) and a waterspout guy (Riptide).
  8. Never trust a stripper. Especially one sired by Lenny Kravitz that has insect wings and spits fire.
  9. I might be spoiled by the effects extravaganzas I’ve seen over the years, but I was a tad underwhelmed by the climactic action sequence, even if Erik hoisting a sub out of the water is a joy to watch. You’ve seen the money shots in the previews, and there’s not a lot more than that. Also, the dramatic confrontation between Charles and Erik that follows is staged somewhat, I don’t know, hokily. The two actors manage to make it work, as does a stray bullet’s sad trajectory, but it’s a closer call than it should be.
  10. I wasn’t completely sold about Beast in the film, acting or otherwise, but all that changed when he snapped and had a savage “FUCK YOU!” moment with Erik. All was forgiven after that.

There you have it. It’s pretty good. I’m not as gaga as some, but I don’t want to rain on anyone else’s enjoyment. You may love it. I hope you do. There’s certainly more than enough to latch onto.

I give X-Men: First Class three (almost, but not quite, three and a half) out of five Kevin Bacon/Sebastian Shaw sideburns, making it a Blog into Mystery “see it when you get the chance”:

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