REVIEW: X-Men: First Class

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It’s impossible to detach myself from my fandom and the fact that I really wanted X-Men: First Class to be a good movie. Despite X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I believe there’s still hope for Fox’s current X-franchise and First Class went a long way toward confirming that. It’s by no means perfect and there are elements that hurt it, but ultimately I liked it. I had gotten increasingly more anxious/excited to see the movie leading into this weekend and while my initial reaction was full of very mixed feelings, I can say with certainty it’s worth seeing.

Spoilers ahead.

X-Men: First Class is the furthest removed from the comic book continuity of the X-Men line, but I’m very forgiving of these adaptations. My hope was that it would at least be true to the film continuity even though that’s far from ideal already. First Class is very much a part of that universe and isn’t a reboot in the traditional sense. In case there was any doubt, cameos by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique will settle any debate. There are some story points that just aren’t going to line up among the films, but they’re minor and in no way detract from enjoying this movie.

First Class is first and foremost the story of Charles Xavier and Magneto and honestly that’s a great thing. James McAvoy is fantastic as Xavier in the role and is only matched by Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. The movie does exactly what a prequel should and shines a light on the tragedy of what these characters will endure and who they will become. Seeing a young flirtatious Charles Xavier running around is heartbreaking when the audience knows he’ll lose the ability to walk. It was equally ominous seeing Magneto trying to push the mutants he encounters to embrace their power and superiority. The film did eschew some of the strife that’s to come and I particularly enjoyed the way Patrick Stewart’s lines that opened the first X-Men movie about mutation being “the key to our evolution” were repurposed as a younger Xavier’s favorite pick up line. The different paths the principal characters take are founded in what we see here and the only failing is that their different upbringings presented in the first half of the movie aren’t brought back into the spotlight when the rift that forms between the two at the end. Instead we get pontification from Magneto where a depper argument with Xavier would have been more compelling to me. Regardless, Xavier and Magneto are great throughout the movie until the heavy-handed final scenes.

There was a time that a Magneto origin story was in production from Fox along with First Class and Wolverine. It’s clear that any Magneto origin story was more than covered in First Class. My hope is that there won’t be any temptation to milk the story further on screen because it’s perfect here. That’s an interesting development as this is a period of Magneto’s history that has not really been mined in comics. Even Greg Pak’s Magneto: Testament series did not go beyond his days in the concentration camps, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that period explored more in the coming years. While it’s far from X-Men canon, putting a face on Magneto’s tormentor in Shaw helps to explain how a holocaust survivor goes on to declare himself the leader of a superior species.

Magneto has been the go to villain for the X-Men film franchise and without him fighting against Xavier here it was great to see Kevin Bacon give such an impressive performance as Sebastian Shaw. He’s not a character I take too seriously in the comics, but Bacon is excellent here. He’s immediately detestable and you’re never tempted to waver in that opinion. I particularly enjoyed the special effects used to visualize his power set, as we never really “see” that on the page. Shaw’s shockingly brutal demise, which was in many ways well handled, may have been a bit more graphic than I’d like from a movie like this. The character was recently put back in the spotlight at the end of Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men run, and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him in print as well.

First Class successfully pushes the boundaries of the super hero genre. It’s truly a period piece with all of the action taking place in the 1960s and its use of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop is certainly better handled than the Three Mile Island disaster in Wolverine. Magneto’s search for vengeance takes the movie to unexpected places as a number of scenes are subtitled featuring conversations in German, French, Spanish and Russian as entire world serves as a stage for the story. It’s not necessarily what’s expected from either a comic book movie or a Summer blockbuster, but it really works.

Along with all of First Class’ strengths, there were a number of filmmaking decisions that fell flat. The most glaring of these is the fact that a villain who’s given a lot of screen time has no dialogue and isn’t even named on screen. I struggled with whether this was a brilliant decision in not spoon-feeding the audience, but I can’t help thinking it’s a result of bad editing or writing. I’m very familiar with the X-Men universe and still had to refer to the credits to identify Riptide. From his appearance, I would have guessed this was Shinobi Shaw, but his being Shaw’s son would have been something to mention and his powers are completely unrelated. Looks and redesigns notwithstanding, the way Shaw is casually throwing out orders and names it would have been very simple to include his and it stood out by its absence. In a movie like The Last Stand with a huge cast, you can get away with not calling every character by name, but here it’s just not appropriate. Oliver Platt isn’t given a name either and is only credited as “Man in Black Suit.”

Unfortunately, nearly every scene featuring Emma Frost was painful to watch. January Jones is a beautiful woman and she certainly has the right look to be Emma Frost, but considering her amazing redefinition as an X-Men mainstay at the hands of Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon she did not do the character justice. Beast’s presentation also could have been much better than what we see. His re-introduction after trying to cure his physical mutation just looked bad as his silhouette walked toward the group and it only got worse once he emerged. The make up and costuming just fails to present a good look and the build up to it only accentuates it. As the action cut to different locations around the world, the words on screen telling us where each scene was happening were at times absurd, particularly in the case of the “Covert CIA Base,” and many of the flying scenes didn’t work for me and could have used either close ups or wide shots to mask some of the shakiness.

Overall, X-Men: First Class is certainly the best X-Men movie since 2003’s X2 and stands head and shoulders above The Last Stand and Wolverine. X2 remains still my favorite of the set, but this is a worthy addition to the franchise. The return of Bryan Singer to the X-Men‘s film world and the direction of Matthew Vaughn certainly helped, and it’s a sign things are moving the right direction presuming there’s more to come. Creators, fans and critics will be monitoring the box office returns from this weekend, but the initial positive reaction along with even average numbers indicate there’s a good chance we’ll see more X-Men films from Fox.

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