Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class

I will be completely honest with you --- I absolutely hated X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  I'm a huge X-Men comics fan, so it took a lot to completely ruin my excitement in the film franchise; imagining Godzilla using Tokyo as a Slip-n-Slide doesn't quite capture how much those two movies destroyed my faith in X-Men movies, but it's pretty close.  When it was announced that, despite the awfulness of X-MO:W, they were still going ahead with an X-Men Origins: Magneto --- complete with Benjamin Button special effects to de-age Ian McKellan --- my hopes were not high.  But those plans changed, and the Magneto story was incorporated into the story for what would become X-Men: First Class.
Oh, what could have been...!
More importantly, Bryan Singer (director of the first two X-Men films) entered the picture as a producer and Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) was announced as the director.  That might sound only promising to the layperson, but I remember being super excited when Vaughn was originally hired to direct X-Men 3 and frustrated when he quit and the movie ended up sucking horribly.  On the bright side, Vaughn was ballsy enough to later claim that his version of X3 would have been "one hundred times better" than what was eventually made.  Actually, that sounds mathematically possible.  How did it turn out?
Life magazine covers were the best.  We need more homages to them.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with X-Men, here's a quick recap.  Evolution has produced mutations in the human genome, and these mutations have resulted in people with super-powers.  Are they the next evolutionary step?  Will normal humans fear and hate these mutants?  Yes to both.  In the X-Men trilogy, Professor Charles Xavier led his team of X-Men in a fight for peace and equality among humans and mutants.  Xavier's old friend Magneto fought for mutant superiority.  And somehow, the third film was a giant turd milkshake.  There.  You're up to date.

As young boys, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr had vastly different experiences.  While Charles was living in a mansion --- and basically adopting his very own shapeshifting mutant girl, Raven --- Erik was in a Nazi concentration camp.  When it became apparent that Erik could move metal objects without touching them, a Nazi doctor named Schmidt took interest and experimented on the young man, torturing him and even murdering his mother to see the effect on Erik's ability.

Flash forward a few years and it's suddenly the swinging sixties.  Charles (James McAvoy) is a college student, finishing up his thesis (on genetic mutation, naturally) at Oxford and he lives with his "sister" Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).  Charles --- who can read minds --- spends his time hitting on coeds and talking about mutation, while Raven wishes that she her normal form didn't have blue skin.  Erik (Michael Fassbender), who can magnetically manipulate metals, spends his time hunting and killing the Nazis that escaped Nuremberg, always keeping an eye out for an evidence trail that will lead him to the elusive Doctor Schmidt.
Raven auditioning for a Superstar remake

Meanwhile, the CIA stumbled upon a group of mutants while they were trying to find dirty Communists.  Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) managed to catch a glimpse of Doctor Schmidt --- now using the name Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) --- and a small group of super-powered henchmen forcing a US General to order nuclear missiles to be placed in Turkey.  This prompts MacTaggert to consult the world expert in genetic mutation, Charles Xavier.  Charles (and Raven) travel to the CIA, learn about Shaw's apparent desire to make the Cold War a hot one, and they join forces.  At the same time, Erik has been murdering his way through Nazis and finally found a trail that leads to Schmidt/Shaw.  Erik confronts him, but is overpowered by Shaw and his underlings.  In a happy coincidence, Charles and the CIA arrive, just in time to be (you guessed it) overpowered by Shaw and his underlings.  Seeing their separate failures, Charles and Erik decide to join forces and create their own team of mutant underlings students to fight in this battle and prevent a nuclear holocaust.

...and this picture doesn't even have all the X-Men or bad guys!
There are a lot of characters in this movie, but I think most of them were given the appropriate amount of screen time.  The bulk of the film hinges on the relationship between the fury-fueled Erik and the philosophical Charles, and I think that's fitting; their characters drive the later films, so having them interact in a more friendly manner is pretty interesting.  I thought James McAvoy did a good job as Charles, but his is a very different character than the saintly cueball portrayed by Patrick Stewart. 
Xavier, fighting male pattern baldness with hair plugs.
McAvoy brings out the young academic in Xavier's character; he finds ways to connect with others and teach them, he has the arrogance to overlook the basic emotional needs in others, and he uses his book smarts to hit on random college chicks.  I actually really liked this flawed and somewhat immature character performance --- I think I'm starting to enjoy McAvoy as an actor, which will thrill my wife, because she has a big ol' crush on him.  The breakthrough performance in the film is definitely Michael Fassbender's work as Erik, the man who will become Magneto.  I always enjoyed the condescendingly charming performances by Ian McKellen in the other movies, but Fassbender makes the character his own and makes him pretty bad-ass.  His character is fairly bloodthirsty, but Fassbender does a great job keeping the character rooted in human emotions.  My favorite parts of the film involve Erik just beating the living hell out of dozens of humans in creative ways.  I'm going to go ahead and call it right now: Michael Fassbender is going to be in some pretty big movies in the next few years, because this was a star-making role.
Magneto, preparing to back-hand some stupid humans.

The rest of the cast is fine, but nobody really gets nearly as much to work with as those two.  Jennifer Lawrence was good as Raven/Mystique, even if her character arc did have a somewhat abrupt ending.  The other X-Men --- Zoe Kravitz as Angel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Edi Gathegi as Darwin, and Lucas Till as Havok --- were generally just there to show off special effects, but they were all mostly fine.  Hoult gave the best performance out of the group, although that may be because he had a lot more lines that the rest.  Kevin Bacon was decent as the villainous Shaw, but I didn't think there was anything special about him.  He's Kevin Bacon, and that's fine.  January Jones played the under-clothed Emma Frost, and I guess she was okay.  She didn't really show any emotions or say and do anything cool, aside from some special effect shenanigans.  She rarely wore much more than underwear, though, so at least there's that.
Jason Flemyng, a career bit actor, managed to come off as very cool in his portrayal as Azazel.  Sure, it was just because he had dozens of teleportation special effects and he single-handedly killed about thirty inconsequential military characters on-camera, but it was still entertaining.  Alex Gonzalez was okay as the never-actually-named Riptide, but he was little more than a nice suit with blow-dried hair.  Oliver Platt, James Remar, Matt Craven, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, the uber-Russian Rade Serbedzija and a few other career military-looking actors have small parts in the film, too.  There were cameos by Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn, too, and they were actually pretty awesome moments, but they didn't really add much to the overall story.

This is a comic book movie, though, so there are a lot of silly/campy moments.  While the young Erik's grief-fueled rampage was pretty cool, his extended cry of "Nein!" got a little unintentionally funny toward the end.  When Sebastian Shaw is frozen in time toward the end of the film, the expression on Kevin Bacon's face had the same effect.  But for every moment that was a little lame, there were several that totally made up for them.  For instance, the X-Men got their code names after they had been drinking for a few hours.  That is a surprisingly plausible explanation for coming up with names like Mystique and Havok.  Charles Xavier -- who can read minds and frequently does to impress women --- steadfastly sticks to the same pick-up line, even when he's too drunk to bullshit convincingly.  Funny, sure, but also somewhat realistic.  Yes, the villains in the movie were generally C- or D-list (Azazel, in particular) and they had no personalities, but that's not a bad thing; I'm glad that some characters were left as just cool-looking henchmen, if only because that gave more story to the two main characters.

I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn's approach to directing this movie.  There was a lot of action, but it also felt very organic.  I loved seeing the X-Men treated as students and actually taught things about their powers.  I thought tying the X-Men into the Cuban Missile Crisis was an interesting choice, and I ultimately think it worked out okay.  Vaughn doesn't have great instincts behind the camera, but I he knows how to tell a story and he knows how to balance fun with seriousness.  And isn't that what all comic book movies should be like?

As entertaining as I found the film, I will admit that it it's not flawless.  Matthew Vaughn doesn't have the style or subtlety of Bryan Singer or Christopher Nolan, and that can sometimes lead to some awkward moments, like the psychic battle for missile control between Charles and Erik.  And yes, a "psychic battle for missile control" happens.  Azazel's appearance in the film appears to just be because people loved Nightcrawler in X-Men 2, but they wanted to make him a bad guy who already looked evil and didn't need character development --- and, as luck would have it, in the depths of the Marvel Comics archives, they found a character fitting that description.  I was disappointed that Jennifer Lawrence, who was so good in Winter's Bone, plays a character with very little subtlety to her.  There are several character interactions that probably wouldn't hold up to a lot of scrutiny, too, but the specifics slip my mind right now.

Despite all that, I really enjoyed this movie.  It was fun and managed to carry some emotional weight, in the tradition of all successful comic book movies.  I am happy to see new life breathed into this franchise, and I hope they fast-track a sequel, or at least give Fassbender a few more roles where he can be mean.  With any luck, this will start a new series of films that don't pay too much respect to the original trilogy.  For having action and fun, while maintaining two solid character arcs, I give First Class


  1. I was pleasantly surprised to see January Jones dressed the way she always dresses in my mind.

  2. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon were excellent in this. Their confrontation towards the end was very suspenseful.