First thoughts on ‘X-Men: First Class’

Posted by under *like, Comics, Movies |

I’ve been very quiet about the upcoming X-Men: First Class film, but the last few weeks have brought such a flurry of activity I think it’s time to weigh in. The official trailer for the movie hit yesterday on the “X-Men Movies” Facebook page, and multiple sets of photos (some legitimate, some not, and some selected by director Matthew Vaughn himself) were released in the weeks prior. If you visit this site at all regularly, you’ve seen that I’m a huge fan of all things X-Men. I focus primarily on the source material in the monthly comics, but over the years I’ve enjoyed the cartoons and films that have been part of the franchise over the years. I’m very forgiving of the changes to characters and continuity, so long as they serve to make a better story. Unfortunately, the films have declined with each iteration, and like many I’m hoping for First Class to change that trend.

Much of the decline begins and hopefully ends with Bryan Singer. Singer’s decision to work on Superman Returns between X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand led to Fox hastily trying to get the third movie out on their timetable without him (which I think specifically included beating Singer’s Superman Returns to theaters). The loss of Singer also led to James Marsden’s exit from the X-Men as Cyclops (which was a major blow to the Dark Phoenix ending of the movie) as the director took him along for Superman. The Brett Ratner directed X-Men: The Last Stand is largely considered a major step down for the franchise with X-Men Origins: Wolverine possibly falling even further. Just so my position is clear, here are some quick thoughts on what we’ve seen so far:

  • X-Men (2000) did a fine job with introducing the characters, the threat and bringing both of them to life. There are only two things I didn’t like about this first installment: it was perhaps too short (clocking in at about 90 minutes) and the line Halle Barry delivers after hitting Toad with some lighting (it was just awful in every way from conception to delivery). This, along with Blade, was an incredible first step by Marvel and I was thrilled to see my heroes in the spotlight.
  • X2 (2003) improved on the original in many ways with a bigger budget and broader scope. It focuses a bit too much on Wolverine’s past, but that’s just me not wanting the X-universe to revolve around one character (or at least that character). The opening scene in the museum and attack on the mansion were exactly how I wanted the X-Men to appear on screen. At the same time, a story was carefully being built around Jean Grey to bring the Dark Phoenix Saga (easily one of the most popular stories in the X-Men comics) to the screen and I couldn’t have been happier with this one.
  • X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), like so many films to come third in series, is where things really fell apart. The switch from director Bryan Singer to Brett Ratner shifted the tone to more spectacle than substance and the inclusion of too many mutants hurt this movie beyond belief. There are some good things there though. The decision to include characters and a plot introduced in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men comics kept things fresh and the last time we see Professor Xavier on screen is pretty incredible. Unfortunately, too many negatives to cover here surround these positives. The worst for me has to be the elimination of Cyclops in the first 15 minutes of the film. His absence in the final scene was a true failing of this film to properly conclude the story we’d been seeing build from the first movie. It also put the spotlight on Wolverine and the less I see of that the better.
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) is difficult to be objective about since I don’t think the X-Men begin and end with the title character. I don’t think my biases translate to this being a good movie though. For every good choice that was made, four bad ones arose. Wolverine’s team of agents were each given some moments to shine, but something just seemed off. The choices that were made regarding Deadpool were just awful and shortsighted if the intention is spin him off into his own film. There was just too much awkward posing and I remember some of it being met with laughter in the theater. For all its faults, it still may have been better than The Last Stand.

The heroes of X-Men: First Class (left to right): Banshee, Magneto, Mystique, Moira MacTaggart, Beast, Charles Xavier and Havok.

The studio made poor decisions with a hot commodity at the time of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine was their attempt to recover from that. In fact, Origins: Wolverine was even a part of the plan back at the release of The Last Stand along with films for an X-Men Origins: Magento and early talk about First Class. Some argue that he leak of a test print of Origins: Wolverine was a heavy blow to the film’s reputation before its release in theaters, but the reaction to The Last Stand was far more damaging in my opinion. The problem is not that the films are bad because they’re different from the comics or even one another. It’s because they’re just bad movies in and of themselves. Both The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine feature huge casts that are never fully developed. The issue for me isn’t even that they appear on screen (that was done well in the first and second films), it’s that they’re given just enough screen time to make you wonder about who they are knowing that you’re never going to see them in that form again. Yes, you can always go to the comics to learn more, but it’s not good form for a movie to send you elsewhere to figure out what’s going on.

All of that being said, these movies made a lot of money and all the criticism has not affected the decision to create X-Men: First Class in addition to a second Wolverine movie already in the works. The trailer for First Class looks very promising even if the production photos may not have been. The odd trend I’m seeing from the First Class trailer is that these prequel movies seem to be tying X-Men history to events in real world history. Origins: Wolverine chalked the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of the 1970’s to a pitched mutant battle in south central Pennsylvania. First Class follows suit by alluding to the Cuban Missile Crisis involving mutants. This isn’t necessarily bad. The first X-Men film acknowledged Magneto’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp very effectively, but the direct tie to more acute incidents in human history seems a little odd and I’d hate to see it crowbarred into every film.

I know I’ll see this movie during its opening weekend. The return of Bryan Singer to the X-Men film franchise has to be considered a positive, and the movie features Beast and Havok, two of my all-time favorite X-Men. I do not like that Havok’s plasma blasts are red, but that’s an easy way to connect him visually to Cyclops. That’s a nitpick though. The trailer did a lot to tip the balance of this movie having the potential to be good. I can’t wait to see more.

X-Men: First Class opens June 3rd, 2011 and stars James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr, January Jones as Emma Frost, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw.

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