Saturday, June 4, 2011

New Release Review: X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

I'll start this review by stating that I am not a big X-Men fan. I seem to have a natural aversion to the X-Men films, which is an emotion I cannot really explain, but I originally had little interest invested in this prequel. But with such a great cast, a flood of positive early reviews, and an eye-catching trailer, I may have overestimated my expectations. I admit, Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 were quite good, but I was seriously hoping that this film would be good enough to extricate the pungent stench of Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If we are to count Thor as the first of this year's blockbuster season, then this is the best one so far. Is it a masterpiece, or even a remotely memorable film? No.

The idea of First Class is to explain the origins of as many X-Men characters as possible. This excludes Wolverine, because his 'riveting' story has already been told. Though primarily focusing on Professor X and Magneto, it does introduce a lot of recognisable X-Men who are given very little to do. Despite its shortcomings, which I will look at later, First Class is an entertaining action film that effortlessly surpasses the previous two films. Whether it is better than the early instalments, I really cannot say. With excellent performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, this fresh twist on the ailing franchise blends a frightening period of historical conflict with a relatively engaging Marvel story.

First Class unveils the epic beginning of the X-Men saga, establishes the friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) before they became Professor X and Magneto, and reveals the reasons why they shifted to opposing alliances. The film opens by briefly introducing these two when they were younger. Erik reveals his incredible powers to a prison doctor when he is separated from his parents at a German concentration camp in occupied Poland in 1944. Having witnessed the boy bend a metal gate while under duress from the guards, Dr Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) instructs him to demonstrate his magnetic powers or risk seeing his mother shot. When Erik cannot, Schmidt heinously kills his mother, exposing that Erik's powers emerge when fuelled by anger and duress. One night about the same time, in a New York mansion, Charles Xavier, an orphan raised in a world of wealth and privilege, meets a shape-shifting girl named Raven. Overjoyed at discovering someone else who possessed special abilities, Charles adopts her into his family.

The film then jumps forward to the present day (1962), where we see a haunted and bitter Erik seeking revenge against Nazi war criminals and trying to track down Schmidt (now Sebastian Shaw) by tracing a bar of Nazi gold to Shaw's personal yacht in Florida. It is during this assassination attempt that he is saved by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a fresh college graduate from Oxford working with the CIA. Charles, still living with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), had earlier been approached by CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) after she had followed the U.S Army Colonel into a Hellfire Club and discovered Shaw and his mutant associates, Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), conspiring with the Colonel. With the impending Cold War between Russia and the United States intensifying, Shaw recognises World War III as an opportunity for Mutants to set off an Apocalypse and rule the Earth.

MacTaggert introduces Charles to the CIA, where they convince their Chief that Mutants exist and that the powers Shaw possesses are a real threat to National security. Faced with the same mission, though each possessing very different ideologies about humanity, Charles and Erik unite. They start to recruit a group of younger mutants to assist them, seeking refuge at Charles' family mansion and learning to control their abilities and utilise them in an effective way. When President John F. Kennedy institutes a blockade to stop a Russian ship from moving nuclear missiles to Cuba (the Cuban Missile Crisis) a series of events are set in motion that will shape the eternal war between the heroes and villains of the X-Men universe. I was pretty disappointed by the climactic missile strike. With the exception of the fantastic shot of the ship exploding, the action was far from engaging. The stand off between the Russians and the United States was predictable, and I really got sick of the close-up shots of the rival captains. Having said that, the final moments on the beach, where the X-Men alliances are decided, were quite powerful.

Situating the uprising of Mutants within the context of an impending Nuclear Armageddon is a brilliant idea, but it's a shame that the film is so poorly constructed at times, often caught between a state of maddening simplicity and aggravating convolution. The film's pacing is an essential element to how we perceive the events and seek to engage ourselves in them. Matthew Vaughn (whose overrated Kick Ass was stylish but misguided) chooses a hyperactive approach and throws a lot of different things at the audience. The plot moves at a brisk pace. An awful lot happens, in a lot of different locations, and happens quite quickly. While this ensures that the film's lengthy running time feels significantly less, deems the film very watchable on repeat viewings, and doesn't allow the plot to get bogged down at any time, it does feel very rushed. I struggled to keep a grasp on everything that was taking place. The film is weak in nearly all of the sequences not centred on the Mutants, especially when the United States Government is deliberating how to proceed with Nuclear War, or when the CIA are bickering about whether to utilise Mutants. I lost count of the number of location titles that appeared throughout.

The experience is worth it for the relationship between Erik and Charles alone, which is really well done, but it is disappointing that the other Mutants exist solely for their participation in the action sequences, where Vaughn proves most of his talents lie. This is definitely what I would call an All-Star cast, but it is far from an effective ensemble. Rose Byrne is given little to do other than be a sympathetic CIA agent taken along for the ride, while January Jones' role was to pout and look hot. This was accomplished rather effectively, I must say. Jason Flemying had maybe one line and Oliver Platt was involved for a few minutes. Kevin Bacon was serviceable as a smirking villain, though I have it on good authority that his German in the early sequences was woeful. Jennifer Lawrence was really the only supporting performer who added any real complexity to her character, endowing Raven/Mystique with a teenage self-image problem, a romantic interest, and conflicted sidings to both Charles and Erik.

While I have almost already forgotten about this film, there is still plenty to admire about First Class. Fassbender's portrayal of Erik Lensherr is one of the great portrayals of a comic book character to hit our screens to date. This guy is certainly on the rise following acclaimed performances in a number of indie dramas (Hunger, Fish Tank), while also tackling the bigger market (Inglourious Basterds, Centurion and Jane Eyre). The talented McAvoy (outstanding in The Last King of Scotland) is just as good, endowing Charles with charming, likeable, level-headed qualities, but also a flawed naivety about humanity's acceptance of Mutants. To mask the sporadic plot, Vaughn does reveal some stylish direction at times. The split screen techniques, and the shot from the interior of the Swiss banker's mouth, were particularly innovative. Another impressive feature (in addition to January Jones' chest) was Henry Jackman's score. First Class should not only satisfy X-Men fans, but will also be entertaining enough for viewers with no vested interest in the comics looking for a popcorn flick. It 'may' be one of the best of its kind released this year.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B-)


  1. I'm seeing the flick tomorrow - no press screenings were held in my area.

    I'll read your review, which I'm sure is very good, tomorrow.

    Have a good .... Saturday Andy! :D

  2. Nice review Andy. You make some valid points about the film covering too much ground -- there were a lot of quick location changes -- but I personally thought it never became too confusing or convoluted. I only wish more big-budget movies covered as much ground as clearly as Vaughn does here, particularly after the woefully simplistic Pirates 4.

  3. It uses the themes of the previous movies to build an intelligent, fast-paced, and highly entertaining prequel. The performances from the whole cast, especially McAvoy and Fassbender add a lot to these great characters as well. Good review Andy, check out mine when you can!