Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

I still remember how amazing it seemed 11 years ago that they were actually making an "X-Men" movie from one of my favorite childhood comics -- and here we are with the fifth now out, "X-Men: First Class."

I won't call it a "reboot," because man am I sick of that phrase, but as a prequel, "First Class" is genuinely exciting stuff, filling in the gaps in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and providing the required amount of summer-movie explosions and such. It's easily the best of the "X-Men" movies after "X2," I think, although I don't view "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Wolverine" with quite as much visceral scorn as the rest of the Internet seems to.

The Malcolm X/Martin Luther King kind of dynamic between Xavier and Magneto over mutant rights has been fodder for many of the best "X-Men" stories over the decades, and "First Class" follows the relationship from its start -- including young Magneto's tortured youth in a Nazi concentration camp. There was the solid decision to make this a period piece set in the 1960s, in a world where mutants hold the balance of power in the Cold War and the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis is cleverly folded into the plot.

What I liked:
I have really dug Michael Fassbender in movies like "Inglourious Basterds" and "Centurion," and he owns the screen as a young Magneto. I'd actually say he's better than Sir Ian McKellen was in a lot of ways, tapping into the character's rage and wounded dignity. James McAvoy is less flashy as young Professor X, and plays it a bit goofy with his lounge lizard "groovy" slang sometimes, but ably convinces of Xavier's essential heart and compassion. You believe this man will grow up to be Patrick Stewart.

Jennifer Lawrence brings some needed depth as young Mystique, a shapeshifter trying to fit in. It's a shame her character was nowhere near as well written in the first few "X-Men" movies, and doesn't really mesh well with the more thoughtful woman shown here. The other younger mutants on screen here get less time to develop their characters and some of them are rather weak actors, but Nicholas Hoult as Beast is a stand-out (although I'm afraid I didn't find the CGI/makeup used for his "transformation" later in the film very effective).

The Hellfire Club of the comics, a kind of mutant Masons, were always one of my favorites, and it's good to see them on screen albeit in a somewhat different form. I love Kevin Bacon playing a scenery-chewing Sebastian Shaw. While he isn't exactly the same burly dandy the comics have featured he does a good job of providing sinister menace. January Jones as Emma Frost looks fantastic, but as seen on "Mad Men" the icy Jones seems to have exactly one facial expression about 90% of the time.

What I didn't like:
The movie is fitful in its desire to keep to the 1960s setting. While there's marvelous James Bond/Austin Powers type touches, like Sebastian Shaw's evil submarine and Emma Frost's go-go wardrobes, other times the movie seems to be set in the modern day. Director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") has a lot of style, but it feels like he was holding back a bit (kicky split-screen montage sequences are one of his better gimmicks).

It's a real grab-bag of mutants assembled here for any long-time reader of the "X-Men" comics. You've got Beast and Professor X from the "real" comic book first class, then Havok and Banshee from a slightly later era, and then mutants so darned new in the comics I'd barely heard of them, like Darwin and Azazel. Still, unless you're some kind of rampant continuity nut, the team assembled here works for the story -- and if you're a rabid continuity nut you're going to be really annoyed anyway by how the fate of Charles Xavier in this film doesn't seem to match up at all with appearances he made in "X3" and "Wolverine." So it goes.

After the mixed reception "Wolverine" got I kind of hope "First Class" keeps the X-fires burning. There's a lot of good stories yet to be told, and "First Class" reminds us of the potential the first few "X-Men" movies showed, back when we didn't have 6-7 comic books opening a year.

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