X-Men First-Class Review: Good Grades All Around

I realize reviewing X-Men First-Class more than a month after it came out seems pointless, but since I just watched it last night, I decided I’d review it anyways.  This is a movie that a lot of people didn’t bother seeing, so the way I see it, I might be reviewing right on time considering how it should be hitting cheap second-run theaters pretty soon, giving you a second chance to see a film that was actually quite good.

In terms of summer-superhero-movie-fare, I’d place Green Lantern on one end of the spectrum as a fun sci-fi movie with a lot of action and a B-movie kind of charm (that’s not a put-down either, as some B-movies are quite enjoyable, like The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms).  At the other end of the spectrum, I’d place X-Men First Class.  It’s in many ways a cerebral thriller that will often make you forget you’re watching a superhero movie.  Where Green Lantern was loose and sprawling, X-Men First Class is tightly plotted and comes together like an enormous puzzle.  The other big movie of the summer Thor I’d say hovered somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned spectrum–not a combination of thought and action, but more like a movie not quite thought out enough, and with not enough action.

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake) takes as his model the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise; the way the story comes together had me frequently thinking of how The Dark Knight clicks together.  Sure it’s not as good as The Dark Knight, but so few films are.  I can only commend Vaughn for trying.

Part of the joy of watching this film comes from seeing the story click together, so I’ll give away as little as possible.  At first, the plot seems to meander here and there, but about half an hour into it, you start to see the outline of the big picture, and as you go along, the picture gets clearer and clearer.  The story, in abbreviated form, is about Charles Xavier, himself a young man (played by James McAvoy, whom I normally dislike, but is quite good here), assembling his school of mutants in the 1960s.  Their first major task is to deal with the megalomaniacal Sebastian Shaw (played by Kevin Bacon).

One of the interesting things about this movie is the way in which pop culture and real history are fused together.  Through the superhuman mythos, we’re given a chance to view a revisionist history where good and evil are combatants, rather than part of a murky gray matter that life so frequently offers.  Here’s an example:  in the film, several sound-bytes and actual film clips of John F. Kennedy are used, while in different scenes the CIA and other secret authorities meet in a big War-Room closely modeled on the one we see in Doctor Strangelove–and as most people know, there’s no such thing as the war room, it’s just part of our pop culture consciousness thanks to Stanley Kubrick.  Also, the Cuban Missile Crisis serves as a backdrop for X-Men First Class, except it’s greatly altered almost in the spirit of Tarantino’s textbook rewrite at the end of Inglourious Basterds.

The movie’s strength as well it’s flaws are in its ensemble cast.  As I mentioned earlier, James McAvoy is good in his role here.  Thankfully, he doesn’t try to create an American accent as he did in Wanted, which was so bad it was an insult to America.  Magneto is played by Michael Fassbender, one of the few actors in this film that I didn’t recognize.  He plays his role with steely determination, and I could see in many instances how his character segues into Ian McKellen in the original trilogy.  As good as they are, it’s Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert who keeps the movie together.  As she’s one of the few characters without powers, it’s Byrne’s task to give the audience someone to relate to as well as root for.  It’s always exciting to have a regular human being caught up in a mutant melee.

The weakest acting in the movie came from the villains (like Sinestro in Green Lantern, Magneto is not yet a major villain).  Kevin Bacon I’m guessing was chosen to be the movie’s only big name star and to draw in older viewers who would otherwise be on the fence.  The problem is, his character Sebastian Shaw doesn’t make a lot of sense, and Bacon’s acting is–excuse the pun–hammy in several scenes.  He seems more like a b-movie villain, but in an A movie.  January Jones, who plays Emma Frost, is also out of place.  I understand a lot of people like her in Mad Men, but I didn’t care much at all for her here.  She reminded me of Blake Lively in Green Lantern: she was eye candy for the audience (often in lingerie), and arm candy for Kevin Bacon’s character.  Her acting though was flat and not at all like the Emma Frost I’ve seen in comics.

So to sum up the acting, I’d say a few of the actors in X-Men First Class set the bell curve too high, making a few of the weaker students flounder.  I’d also say the film itself sets the bell curve high for future superhero films.

Here are some of my other reviews for sci-fi/thriller summer movies.

Hanna.

Source Code.

To read some of my nerdier quibbles, with spoilers, continue reading.

One thing I kept thinking during this movie was that, if it did generate new fans, as in people who will go to comic book stores and pick up a bunch of X-Men books for the first time, those fans are going to be completely confused.  X-Men First Class basically puts the X-Men chronology into a blender.  For instance, the story’s set in the sixties and the first villain they fight is Sebastian Shaw, who himself wasn’t written into the story until the start of the Phoenix Saga, which I believe was during the late 80s or early 90s.  Also, whenever actual dates are used in stories leads to confusion; all of the characters in the movie are in their teens or in their twenties, but does that mean they’re in their 60s and 70s in the present.  This makes sense for Xavier and Magneto, but not for Alex Summers–if Alex is that old, how old is his older brother Cyclops?

My big question is this: is this a prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, or is it signalling the restart of the X-Men franchise?  If anyone knows the answer to this, please write it in the comments box.  The third X-Men movie left the franchise nowhere left to go.  I’m seriously hoping this movie is restarting everything.  If it is, the future X-Men films will feature more side-characters, as it introduces so many.  My other question is, if this is the restart of X-Men, does it invalidate the movie Wolverine: Origins which was itself a prequel to the original X-Men trilogy?

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