X-Men: First Class (Review)

Matthew Vaughn reboots the comatose X-Men franchise with a refreshing style and energy that has been missing since X2, giving an emotional core to one of Marvel’s most famous villains and resulting in one of the most satisfying films of the summer.

Preliminary news on X-Men: First Class had me somewhat skeptical. My knowledge of the X-Men franchise is certainly not as robust as I would like it to be, and the announcements of an origin film with several mutants that I was not entirely familiar with was not particularly appealing to me. It didn’t help that the marketing that started to come out for the film was nothing short of horrendous. An over-reliance on shots from the original films for a backbone to the trailers and shockingly ugly posters coming out every few weeks seemed destined to kill the film before it even came out. Going to the theater, I was less than thrilled. However, the surprising critical acclaim for the reboot does not lie: X-Men: First Class is an energetic, stylish superhero flick that stands tall alongside the strong original movies.

The films opens just as Bryan Singer’s original film did: a young Erik Lehnsherr in a concentration camp, suddenly separated from his parents and accidentally discovering his power over metal. The next scenes establish how Erik refined his powers on the path to becoming Magneto: through psychological and emotional torture at the hands of a Nazi doctor who would come to be known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw murders Erik’s mother before his eyes, and sends Erik on a lifelong manhunt for the cruel doctor. A flash-forward has Erik well on his way to tracking down Shaw and his right-hand woman, Emma Frost (Mad Men’s January Jones), an extremely powerful telepath who can transform her skin into diamond. Shaw manages to escape Erik the first time they cross paths, upon which a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), delighted to find another person with powers, invites Erik to join him as allies. Recognizing that he cannot defeat Shaw alone, Erik decides to join Charles in their search for other mutants. Before long, the duo, along with Xavier’s lifelong friend Raven/Mystique, find and recruit the teenagers who would come to be known as Beast, Havoc, Banshee, Angel, and Darwin.

Bryan Singer delivered two excellent X-Men movies; they functioned as a commentary on individuals who were different and felt isolated, and were shunned as a result. Mutation served as a blanket representation for color, sexuality, and anything not deemed “normal” by society. Singer’s films had depth and heart, something that lacked from superhero films before them. Those two films were followed by Brett Ratner’s flashy but shallow X-Men: The Last Stand and Gavin Hood’s dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Starting with Ratner’s film, the series lost its focus in favor of massive action sequences, and Hood’s film, while exciting, was simply a messy travesty of butchered comic book mythology. The series was clearly in desperate need of new life, and has found it in director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed last year’s gleefully inappropriate and completely excellent Kick-Ass, as well as 2007’s inventive Stardust. Vaughn has a pleasing style and energy to his filmmaking, and his creative directorial flair shines through in First Class‘s 60s setting. From creative cuts to some fun split-screen montages, the visual style of First Class treads away from the noise and confusion of the last two X-Men films and grounds the series once more.

The visual style of the film carries over into the set design, which is tastefully diverse and expensive looking with a distinct 60s-era James Bond flavor. There are a number of large setpieces–a Strangelove-esque war room, the Xavier mansion, the estate of a Russian general, and Shaw’s submarine/secret base–all of which are delightfully reminiscent of the time period while also echoing science fiction and paranoia that was characteristic to the times. It’s a great film to look at and there is a very impressive attention to detail in the sets. Keep an eye on the backgrounds and see what you can find in them.

But what of the emotional core that Singer’s films had and the other two lacked? It has returned in full force for Vaughn’s reboot, and the characters are once again refreshingly three-dimensional. These characters all have a past, and the sense of angst due to isolation and difference makes a triumphant return from the original two films. It may be even stronger here, since the film focuses on the pivotal disagreement between Erik and Charles: whether or not humans and mutants can coexist. The emotional dynamic between the characters, while unfortunately becoming volatile before the two became best friends, is very powerful to watch unfold.

Surprisingly, the best aspect of X-Men: First Class is the acting. It is common for superhero films to feature hammy or excessive acting, and though several of the minor characters do slip into the stereotype, the main players refreshingly keep their performances natural for the most part. By far the strongest performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Fassbender brings an emotion to the character that Ian McKellan lacked. Here, Magneto is a dynamic and three-dimensional character, and arguably the individual central to the film. He creates a villain that invites sympathy, and his individual swath of destruction in the name of vengeance for his mother is one that is easy to root for. One pivotal moment for Erik toward the end of the second act was beautifully acted by Fassbender and a satisfyingly emotional, quiet moment for Erik. James McAvoy plays an extremely different Charles Xavier than Patrick Stewart did in the original trilogy. A far cry from the serious, wise Professor in those films, this Xavier is a charming womanizer. It was fun to see the difference, and I look forward to seeing the evolution in future sequels. Kevin Bacon makes for an excellent central villain as Shaw. While Shaw would occasionally get a little over-the-top with his constant sneering, scheming, and killing of random people, Bacon still was a blast to watch. He remains, in my opinion, a much better villainous actor than heroic, and I want to see more of it. January Jones, as his partner in crime, is equally cruel and just as entertaining to watch. Jones is a ridiculously good actress, and seeing her play a villain character (as opposed to Don Draper’s wife in Mad Men) is great fun.

Matthew Vaughn has proven over the years that he is a remarkably capable filmmaker. He began as a producer for Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and went on to direct Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass. X-Men: First Class is no different; like last month’s Thor (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and like Bryan Singer’s original films, it shows that superhero movies can deliver plenty of thrills and comic book-style fun and still have heart. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited for a franchise as I am for Vaughn’s new vision for this super team.

Score: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language.

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Posted on June 7, 2011, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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