Film Review of X-Men: First Class
About ten years ago, the words “X-Men movie” would have your average Marvel comics fan grinning from ear to ear. Director Brian Singer had taken the long running and popular Marvel icon and given it a believable, gripping film treatment that made just enough changes to keep mainstream audiences onboard (“What did you expect, yellow spandex?”) whilst keeping much of the original comic’s spirit and themes. This success was followed up with the rip-roaring X-Men 2, painting those same themes across a much larger canvas to great success.
Everything seemed to be going well for the franchise.
Until we ran headlong into the wall of slimy Hulk-poop that was X-Men 3.
The carefully cultivated plots and characters that had built up over the past two films were given such a bland, ham-fisted and dismissive conclusion in X3 that I was pretty much soured on the whole trilogy. Following this came the woeful Wolverine Origins movie, which did a great job of sticking huge adamantium claws through any lingering shred of enthusiasm I had for the franchise.
So when I walked into the latest instalment, X Men: First Class, it was with the kind of wary suspicion usually reserved for a grenade with the pin missing.
Thankfully, the franchise appears to have borrowed Wolverine’s healing factor and regenerated itself to a large degree.
X Men: First Class is set during the 1960’s and has as its focus the meeting of a young Professor X and Magneto, the growth of their friendship and the eventual start of the deadly rivalry. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose impressive resume includes Layer Cake and Kick-Ass, XM:FC (Lazy? Moi?) is a movie that’s easily the equal of the first or second film in terms of visuals, character and story. Which is especially impressive when you take into account that some parts of this film REALLY miss the mark. And when it misses the mark, it misses hard. And not just with one or two brief moments.
This film misses hard with entire scenes.
Take for example the opening sequence with a young Magneto and a Nazi scientist. It’s a disaster of a scene, partly due to the fact that the actor playing Child-Magneto isn’t very good at all, and partly due to the fact that the scene concludes with Magneto meekly deciding to work with the man who just shot his mother. The scene makes no sense, especially since Magneto’s rage over the murder is a driving plot point. He’s powerful enough to kill everyone else in the room, but he doesn’t try to kill the MotherShooter? It jarred me right out of the story for a good few minutes.
Or take a later moment where a key character delivers a pivotal speech intended to show a tipping point in their development, and the conclusion of their story arc. The grandiose and operatic manner in which it’s given is so far removed from the generally toned down and wry nature of the rest of the dialogue that it falls flat where it should have been rousing, and turns what should have been a chilling, thrilling character moment into a rather cringe-inducing bit of ham. These scenes feel like they teleported in, Nightcrawler style, from the previous two X-Men movies with orders from some dark God to stink up the screen.
Thankfully, the rest of the film makes up for these occasional howlers.
James McAvoy’s younger, brasher Professor Xavier is both charming and earnest in the right measures, and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is easily the standout performance, with his dark, sardonic charisma allowing him to steal every single frame of film that he’s in. The result is that the friendship between the two leads is compelling, and the tragedy of their eventual, inevitable confrontation is accentuated. It’s everything that Obi-Wan and Anakin’s screen relationship should have been and was not.
Of course, an X-Men movie isn’t just about the characters, it’s about breaking out the mutant powers and causing some damage to the local landscape, and the film scores high on this test as well. The action sequences are well shot and make good, creative use of the characters various abilities to cause inventive mayhem. Oh, and this film wins the award for “Coolest Thing Ever Done With A Coin.”
That last sentence isn’t a joke, I promise you.
Moving, on the story weaves nicely into the historical events and technology of the 1960’s, and manages to blend character arcs and sub-plots into a compelling narrative that hangs together well enough, with one slight reservation on my part.
See, when we first meet the adult Magneto, he is hunting Nazis across the globe against the backdrop of the swinging 60’s like some dark, super-powered James Bond. The taut direction, sly writing and sheer charisma of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto come together in these scenes to create some fantastically entertaining cinema, and I ended up wishing that there had been an entire movie dedicated to this sub-plot. Apparently there were actual plans at one point for a Magneto Origins movie based around this concept, plans which were abandoned before XM:FC began development, and having seen how well it worked here I’m now wistful for what could have been.
But it’s kind of unfair to criticize the movie for doing something so well that I was left wanting more, so I won’t. Even though I just did.
Anyway, the point is, see this film. Look, it has a sequence where an attractive CIA agent infiltrates a secret hideout by stripping down to her underwear and just walking coyly past the guards. What more do you want?
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