X-Men: First Class Review
I can’t wait for Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. His Batman films have been the absolute benchmark which all other superhero productions have had to deal with. Some have come close, others have gone in different directions, but Nolan hasn’t, so far, been topped. So I was quite shocked to hear that they were planning to reboot the Batman franchise after he finished his trilogy. Sure, I’d heard about Spiderman – no big deal, especially given the two-villains-too-many third movie; they’d already rebooted Hulk twice and will no doubt have to do it again; and the same goes for Superman, despite Returns being quite enjoyable. But Batman? At least wait a respectful number of years – a couple of months ago they announced the (unrealistic) reboot date would be in 2013, and with Nolan’s conclusion not coming until 2012 this is just plain ridiculous. It’s not even like they’re going to go down a Dark Knight Returns path and look at a different-era Batman, as Frank Miller explored in his excellent graphic novels (which was an excellent reboot in and of itself when comic sales were flagging). No, I just don’t want to think about it right now; I’d prefer to think that it won’t happen – or will at least get put off for a good few years.
Although DC superheroes have always had the edge for me – Marvel comic heroes are so damn colourful, and so diverse, that you can’t help but love at least a few of them. That good old angry-man, Hulk, is probably my favourite (or Blade, but that’s a much darker, different kind of comic hero), but I’ve got time for many of the others – and quite like the group offerings. And I’ve always favoured X-Men over DC’s Justice League; the characters might find it much harder to be compelling by themselves, but, as a team, there’s just nothing like them. There’s a guy who can read minds. A girl who can move objects with her thoughts. A girl who can wield lightning and control the weather. A guy who has super-healing. Oh, and a guy who can shoot rays of energy from his eyes. That’s just the home team as well, we’re not even discussing the opponents, the reserves or the numerous other characters who populate this particular universe. X-Men isn’t just one man’s voyage; it’s a whole different world. A world where mutants live amongst us; and where some may be good – and some may be evil, but pretty-much all of them are very, very cool.
“Peace will never be an option.”
After being torn from the arms of his parents at a Nazi concentration camp, a young boy discovers that he has the power to control metal with his mind. His name is Erik. On the other side of the world, in New York, we are introduced to a young rich kid, Charles, who also has a unique gift – namely, the power of telepathy. Hearing a noise in his mansion one night, he bravely goes to take a look and finds a young girl impersonating his mother – she’s got a gift too, you see: she can shapeshift. Her name is Raven.
The best part of two decades later we find Charles publishing a thesis on mutation and becoming a professor; his best friend Raven in tow, but struggling with the fact that Charles neither sees her as anything more than a friend, nor fully accepts her natural state as a mutant – i.e. blue-skinned. His work is noticed by a certain CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert, who believes that certain individuals with mutant abilities are putting pressure on the US Government to green light nuclear missiles being transported to Turkey as a deterrent for the Russians. You see, we’re at the height of the Cold War, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and certain individuals are seeking to precipitate an all-out strike to decimate the human race; mutual destruction. Only the mutants will survive.
Will Charles be able to help the CIA avert a nuclear holocaust? And what of Erik, who appears to also want to find the mutants behind this diabolical plan – but for completely different reasons – whose side will he be on?
I think Bryan Singer did a pretty good job with the first two X-Men movies, and I certainly have to give him his due for contributing towards the resurgence of interest in superhero movies that kick-started in 2000 with X-Men – its success paved the way for all the others, including Nolan’s Batman movies. But Singer’s approach was still, in my opinion, quite skewed. His bias towards the character of Wolverine didn’t work for me – it’s not what X-Men is about. And whether you enjoy them or not, Singer’s series definitely went off the rails with its third instalment, for which he only served as a producer (and few count the Wolverine-dedicated spin-off as being all that great either, a shallow, well-intentioned, but ultimately superficial addition to the franchise). Still, I was quite surprised to hear about a new X-Men ‘reboot’ so soon after Wolverine. Not shocked, like for Batman, but surprised. A part of me found it to be quite a pleasant surprise – I saw the potential in the characters for them to bring something new to the series, a different take on the proceedings. And when I heard it would be taking the characters back to their origins, to the first encounters of Professor X and his nemesis, Magneto, back when they were still best friends, I became quite intrigued. Of course, there was still a great deal of trepidation – particularly since Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen pretty-much defined these characters for the best part of a decade – but the potential was there to make it work.
When the director and cast were announced, things got even more interesting. Matthew Vaughn was taking the helm – the guy who gave us Layer Cake and Kick-Ass – and acclaimed young actors James McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank) were taking up the mantle as Charles ‘Professor X’ Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr. Amidst a plethora of summer blockbusters, none of which have really grabbed my attention so far, I was drawn towards X-Men: First Class more than the others. I thought it could be something quite special. And, it turns out, I was right...it could have been.
Working off a script that has nothing directly to do with the X-Men: First Class graphic novel released a few years ago – but which employs the same principle of exploring the origins of the characters – Matthew Vaughn’s crafted an interesting look at how these characters came to be; their early experiences – what would eventually make them the great friends and sworn enemies that we know them as from Singer’s trilogy. The plan is obviously to do another prequel trilogy (there are so many characters left to explore), and, with all the disparities between this and the other movies (just for a start, the timeline is completely wrong, and would leave many much older than they were shown as in the original X-Men movies), I have to wonder whether it will end there – or whether they will just keep going with a completely fresh take on the latter-day X-Men. Honestly, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but this is certainly no “X-Men Begins”. But it could have been.
First, let’s look at what went right. Michael Fassbender makes for an excellent Magneto, truly instilling the character with all the pain, hate, rage and anger you would expect; and showing how the fragments of humanity in him are slowly chipped away by his relentless, self-destructive quest for revenge. Aside from a strange accent issue he appeared to have – he spends the first half of the moving speaking about 4 different European languages, quite impressively, but his accent for the rest of the duration became, inexplicably, increasingly Irish – he is, without a doubt, the shining light in this show; acting at a completely different level to pretty-much everybody else involved. James McAvoy comes close, he’s always reliable, and here is no exception, but his Charles Xavier is just painfully goody-goody, altruistic to the extreme, and yet quite blind as to the reality of the world around him. I know this is probably what they were going for with the character but, at the end of the day, Erik’s observations about mankind and their reaction to mutant-kind are a lot more realistic.
It’s a star-studded cast, but only a few of them actually stand out – Kevin Bacon is on scene-stealing form as the über-villain of the piece. He may dress like a Bond villain, and spend his time in Bond-villain-like headquarters, or in a sneaky stealth-submarine, surrounded by henchmen and scantily-clad women, but he’s actually quite threatening. And convincingly dangerous. Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) also brings a certain amount of depth to the character of Raven – who we know better as the shape-shifter Mystique. Considering Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ portrayal of the same character was all about the sexy moves, with no focus paid on any kind of depth whatsoever, newcomer Lawrence does a great job of doing just the opposite. Her unrequited love – or perhaps even just yearning to be accepted – is a great backbone for her character’s story-arc, and you can truly understand the choices that she makes, and the reasoning behind them.
What makes X-Men: First Class still a good movie, in spite of the all the bad things, definitely involves these four characters; and mostly revolves around the friendship between Charles and Erik, and the parallel paths they follow before being forced to go their own separate ways. They have the best scenes, the best moments in the movie – they give us the best performances; the only decent acting – and they get the majority of the action. The man-who-will-become-Magneto is definitely a force to be reckoned with, and often feels like he is carrying the movie by himself.
Hang on a second...wasn’t there talk, a while back, about a spin-off Magneto movie? What happened to that? Well, this is where things get interesting. You see, I think that everything good about X-Men: First Class actually comes from the Magneto script, which was apparently absorbed into the production. The plot for the aborted Magneto film centred on a young Erik, you see, and how he met and became friends with Charles Xavier; how they worked together, and what turned them into arch-enemies.
The trouble is that the story doesn’t stop there. You see there was another X-Men spin-off movie that was being once touted: a story about young X-Men, kids, and how they grew up with their powers. Far more fun and frivolous, it was clearly geared for a younger generation – colourful characters, teen angst, the usual. What we see in First Class is an unholy union between these two distinct stories, as the character arcs of Charles and Erik take a round-the-houses detour which involves recruiting and forming the Xavier school for mutants – and which even features a fairly late in the day generic training montage (a really painful one, too, which looks like it was ripped straight out of McG’s Charlie’s Angels – far from a compliment!). Throw into the mix some Government experiments, shifting allegiances, a couple of caricature bad guys (including one who appears to be a cross between Hellboy and Nightcrawler), a mutant serum, and a couple of dozen ballistic missiles, and what you have is quite a densely-plotted X-Men prequel, which tries to tell an awful lot, even for its two-and-a-quarter-hour runtime. And the trouble is that dense plot doesn’t necessarily equate to good plot, and there is a fair amount of unnecessary material here to pad out the proceedings – normally involving the new recruits. Banshee, Havoc and Beast are all well-realised but ultimately pointless; and, on the other side, Emma Frost is utterly wasted, reduced to just wandering around in lingerie and occasionally changing into her fairly unimpressive diamond form. No, First Class concerns itself far too much with eye candy: flashy effects, fast cuts between multiple simultaneous fights and a perpetual, nagging feeling that the film is more about playing spot-the-actor than serious threat and serious consequences.
In amidst it all, the story of Charles and Erik – Professor X and Magneto – still remains intact, however, and that’s the reason you’ll want to watch the movie, and want to stick with it through to the end. It’s just a shame that they didn’t go down the Magneto movie route, because that could have been a great movie, rather than this, which is merely a good one. What’s the future for the X-Men franchise? Well, if they avoid more montages, reduce the number of irritating or silly characters, and bring back Fassbender and McAvoy in the primary roles, then there is still some hope (not that it depends on anything other than Box Office numbers - which look good). Despite everything that went wrong with this production, and all the bad choices made, there’s still a solid story and some decent performances in there, smothered under all the rest of it – and, if you’re an X-Men fan; or even a superhero fan, you won’t want to miss seeing it. For those who have yet to be persuaded to embrace this rapidly-burgeoning sub-genre – which, I think, has reached saturation-point for many cinemagoers, despite the fact that they just keep churning them out (flashy but pretty generic trailers for Captain America and The Green Lantern played before the main feature) – X-Men: First Class will probably not change your mind. It’s entertaining, at times even compelling, but ultimately really quite flawed.
X-Men: First Class is a good movie, encased in a fluffy, often generic outer shell; padded out by colourful, young-audience-friendly characters and extraneous story plotting. It’s not even a case of style over substance – it’s merely a matter of having a good script spliced with a bad one. The Magneto/Professor-X origins are great, with superb performances from Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy; but the First Class bit, which involves training montages and teens-with-powers on their oh-so-predictable character journeys from untapped potential to kick-ass superhero, is just throwaway through-and-through. Still, X-Men fans won’t want to miss the excellent origin of Magneto story that is buried at the core of this flawed superhero blockbuster; a film which does show potential, and which could be the start of a quality trilogy, if only this particular team would step up its game.
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