Posted by: Trey | 06/03/2011

“We Are the Children of the Atom”

X-Men First Class (2011)

Trey’s rating: 3 Furry Blue Geniuses Piloting Supersonic Jets (out of 5)

I’ll be honest – I’m not the biggest fan of the X-Men, in print or on the screen.  In general the franchise tends to suffer from an unbalanced ratio of character quantity to level of character depth, as well as some very complicated continuity, which makes even the most basic exposition difficult.  Add to that the fact that the last two X-movies were decidedly sub-par (read: GARBAGE), and you’ll understand that it was with some hesitation that I went into the theater to watch X-Men First Class.

Surprisingly, this movie is pretty entertaining.  Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are both well cast as the young, 1960s version of Magneto and Professor Xavier, and the film is at its strongest when it follows their respective exploits.  McAvoy’s Charles Xavier comes across as more human (for want of a better word) than Patrick Stewart’s – I don’t think this is entirely a performance issue, as Stewart was very good in the previous X-movies.  However, in First Class the younger Xavier is shown joking, drinking, hitting on women in pubs – essentially offering a glimpse of the life that would later be totally replaced by his duties at the School for Gifted Youngsters.  Similarly, Fassbender’s Magneto is more physical than Ian McKellan’s could ever have been.  For the first section of the film, the newly revised and elaborated backstory given to Magneto plays kind of like a 1960s extension of Inglourious Basterds – with Magneto traveling the world to hunt former Nazis.

Unfortunately, the “original” team of gifted youngsters (mostly made up of mutants who didn’t show up until much later in the comics) are not nearly so compelling.  Most of them are given little development, and – whether an issue of performance quality or lack of material – the actors mostly failed to impress me.  It was with these characters (especially Mystique and Beast) where much of the same ground was covered as the previous X-Men films.  In other words, it follows the same ‘young people trying to come to terms with being different from others’ scenario that worked so well for Bryan Singer.  Beyond that, their interactions, reversals, and betrayals never ring particularly true and have almost no major impact on the plot.  Along with that, their dialogue, especially when it functions to try and work in “code names” and such from the comics, just comes across as clunky and awkward.

As a comic book fan I think Kevin Bacon was an inspired choice for the role of Sebastian Shaw, and he makes a threatening and interesting villain.  Sadly I felt the character became less effective as the film went on, and nothing later in the film even came close to topping his introductory scene.  His supporting villains (as with any X-movie the villains like working on teams as much as the heroes) look very cool, but lack anything resembling real characterization.  The next largest villain role is January Jones as telepath and unofficial Tifffany & Co. spokesperson Emma Frost.  She is given less motivation or development than Shaw, and I suspect was mostly present because she’s a fairly well-known character (having appeared anachronistically as a younger character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and because she is mostly known for wearing white lingerie.  The other villains, Azazel (older, taller, more vicious red-skinned version of Nightcrawler) and Riptide (who can throw tornadoes at people) are there purely for fight scenes and “cool” factor.  In fact, Azazel barely speaks and I don’t think Riptide spoke at all.

When the film works, it is because of the strength of the performances by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Kevin Bacon.  Luckily, the movie spends a lot of time with them.  Also, director Vaughn does a great job of evoking the 1960s period, and the retro style goes a long way toward adding to the sci-fi/adventure vibe.  Of course, it totally oversimplifies the complexities of US-Soviet relations in the time leading up to the Cuban missile crisis, but you can’t go into an X-Men movie expecting Thirteen Days.  I appreciated the more comic book-style blue & yellow costumes, which were much more colorful and eye-catching than the black leather look of the earlier films, and the production and costumes in general used the period to great effect to make things vibrant within the context of the 1960s a la James Bond (Speaking of which, I am officially going on the record saying that Michael Fassbender should replace Daniel Craig as the next James Bond – I don’t care if he’s half German).  There is also a very fun cameo which I won’t spoil here except to say that it is the best use of the one-time-only PG-13 F-bomb that I have ever seen.

I haven’t watched the original three X-movies recently, but I am willing to say that I enjoyed First Class at least as much as my prior favorite, X2 – and possibly even more.  In some ways I am reminded of Batman Begins, which in retrospect has a lot of flaws mostly related to its emphasis on the origin story.  I don’t think it’s as good as the more recent Marvel output like Iron Man or Thor (the X-franchise is still controlled by Fox), but it is certainly an improvement over X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  This seems to be the summer for less conventional comic book genre hybrids, with the fantasy-based Thor, period sci-fi/action X-Men: First Class and Captain America, and the even more sci-fi Green Lantern all being released within months or even weeks of each other.  X-Men: First Class is a solid, if flawed, release which gives me hope both for the summer and for the future continuation of the franchise – so long as McAvoy and Fassbender can be retained as Professor Xavier and Magneto.  And maybe by then the writers/producers will be willing to use some proper characters, like Cyclops, Angel (not to be confused with the female character in this film), or Jean Grey/Marvel Girl – but let’s leave Wolverine to his own franchise, okay?

© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved

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