X-Men: First Class (2011) – Darwin Chooses Substance over Style
As someone who is not very keen on comic book movies, I thought I was going to be totally screwed as a newborn film critic this summer. But we made it through Thor with some moderate success and now I’m treated to this gem? Maybe hope does spring eternal.
*looks at opening release calender, sees DC’s Green Lantern on the horizon* Well shit.
Alright, so maybe I should just stay in the moment and just enjoy how amazing X-Men: First Class ended up being. In fact, it’s SO GOOD, I may have to check it out a second time: something almost unheard of in these ten dollar plus ticket times we live in.
Let’s start with the casting, and along with it, superior acting even than in the previous entries to the series. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play younger versions of Professor X and Magneto as if the future of the franchise depended on it. In a way it does, since the much maligned Wolverene prequel and X-Men: Last Stand ended up tearing down any public goodwill that was offered to these mutant freaks. But what I really mean is those two boys tear into their roles as if this truly was the first time we are being introduced to these iconic characters. And that’s something really remarkable. The fact that there is more than a touch of homo-fan service provided here, doesn’t hurt me any either. I particularly appreciated scenes where they are so unimaginably close, you can almost feel the love/hate spark beginning to build between them.
That these leads are supported so well with an earnestly serious story only mildly peppered with silly hijinks is amazing. For every moment of depth, say Nicholas Hoult as Beast trying to persuade Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique that they need to at least appear normal, there are great efforts to bring in the laughs, such as the training of Havok who is prettily played by Lucas Till. (Yum!) The script is careful not to let the jokes stray too far from the SERIOUS BUSINESS of trying to stop Kevin Bacon from making us all one degree of separation closer to World War 3 during the Cuban Missile Crises.
While there are some minor missteps, mostly involving the sheer number of locations and time periods we have to leap to in order to get this ambitious story done, even I won’t be so Emma Frost enough to take away what these people have accomplished. And that is making a Summer Blockbuster Comic Book Movie™ actually really compelling and excellent.
What do you do when Bret Ratner crash lands the last in a great set of films? Well, first you make sure he has nothing to do with any more of them and second you want turn back time and hopefully reset the X-Men clock to before Ratner passed X-Men: The Last Stand onto a film reel. Comics are all about alternate universes – let’s enter one where the directors, actors, and storyline are thought out and entertaining.
Just with the folks involved, this movie had a great chance of being at least good. I have thoroughly enjoyed every one of Matthew Vaughn’s films from Layer Cake to, most recently, Kick-Ass. Given a bigger budget, I knew he would be capable of more. Two of the writers were also on Thor (uh-oh), but I’m sure Vaughn and Jane Goldman reeled them back to reality. Top off the talent with James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. There was a brilliant mix of established talent and new faces. Nobody was a nobody, but I’ll bet this is the first time since Mad Men that you recognized January Jones on screen.
So we’re back in time with the start of X-Men. Sure they’ve been around, but they didn’t get their catchy nicknames or skin-tight suits until this moment. Speaking of skin-tight suits, it’s amazing how every movie tries to justify with a scientific explanation why the female characters need super-cleavage inducing suits. Can’t we just gloss over a reason and all get along? I’d rather leave the cool action to the big screen – I really can’t describe how nice everything turned out. Great explosions, very nice period settings. We get requisite TV shots of Kennedy saying “Cuber” so we all know what year we’re in. What I can talk about (since this is a critical critics review) is character development.
If I had any complaint, it would be wanting more character growth. By this point we know a lot about Prof. X and Magneto. Don’t twist my words in your angry mind, comic-book reader, I liked seeing that initial relationship and falling out. I also loved seeing Mystique’s beginnings (played by the crazy-talented Jennifer Lawrence), but there were so many other characters that seemed to be begging for more back story. Even Sebastian Shaw – obviously a very talented mutant – was assumed to just be the evil guy who needed getting. Little was revealed besides his early ties to Magneto. I know it’s hard to have a film under 4 hours long with as many characters that populate a mutant environment, but I was left wanting more. It’s really a pitiful complaint against an enjoyable film.
While X-Men: First Class had it’s little comic-type jokes, it generally avoided the cheese factor enough to create a world that us non-comic watchers didn’t feel lost in the little inside jokes. With a $65 million opening, I’m hoping Vaughn and the rest of the crew return for more retro-styled X-Men adventures very soon.