I went into X-Men: First Class with fairly high hopes. I wasn’t expecting it to be Best Picture material (though I’d have been thrilled if it was), but I definitely expected it to at least be the best of the 4 comic book movies this summer (the others of course being Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern). X-Men is by far my favorite comic book property, and by extension my favorite Marvel property. I love a lot of these characters, and have since the X-Men cartoon in the early 90’s (as with every other comic book movie, I never read the comics). Magneto in particular is my favorite individual comic book character, and he’s also one of my favorite villains in all of fiction. The themes and issues X-Men deals with grant it the potential for the best, most real world-based storylines of any major comic property. As much as I love pure fantasy, it’s much more challenging (and thus rewarding when it’s done well) to credibly place superhuman characters in the real world, which is what X does best. Hollywood’s cinematic versions of X-Men have produced mixed results. I’d say Bryan Singer‘s X-Men (2000) was very good, X2 (2003) was great, Brett Ratner‘s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was fucking awful, and the first spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), is entertaining, but can only be described as seriously flawed at best. In other words, X-Men has been very hard to get right.
I was happy to see Fox decide to go in a new direction for this reboot/prequel (because really, Last Stand had driven the franchise off a cliff creatively), and I thought at the time that Matthew Vaughn was a capable enough choice to take the director’s chair. Vaughn started out as a producer (he produced Guy Ritchie‘s classics Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), and has moved smoothly into directing, first with Layer Cake, then on to Stardust (which I have no interest in ever seeing) and last year’s underrated and underseen Kick-Ass. I think he’s developing nicely as a director, and his second foray into the comic book genre is a great improvement with regards to his filmmaking style and the quality of the effects, stunts and production value. Of course, the main reason for that is the fact that the budget of this movie was probably greater than the combined budgets of every other project he’s ever been involved with. He did especially well when he put together his crew. He used Ridley Scott‘s cinematographer (the great John Mathieson), Christopher Nolan‘s editor (the great Lee Smith) and stunt coordinator (the great Tom Struthers), as well as the legendary Brian Smrz as his second unit director. Basically, with a crew like that, my mom could direct this movie. I kid, of course (no offense, mom). Vaughn clearly had a vision here and brought his own sensibilities to the project.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD THROUGHOUT. I can’t cover this movie the way I need to without giving stuff away, so my best recommendation is not to read this until after you’ve seen the movie, or if you just don’t care about being spoiled. Most of you don’t need this review to decide whether or not you’ll see the film, you’re just reading it to get my opinion. But in case you haven’t decided, go see it. If you’re a fan of the first two X-Men movies, this is definitely worth your time. On top of that, you don’t have to pay extra for crappy 3D! What else could you want?
WHAT I LIKED
–Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr/Magneto & James McAvoy as Charles Xavier. These two actors, and their characters’ relationship, are the glue of the movie, and that glue is strong. I was a bit hesitant when I first heard about McAvoy being cast, but as the trailers came out, those fears were quickly alleviated. He’s a fine actor, and gives another fine performance here. I loved seeing what pre-wheelchair Xavier was like, particularly early on when we see the playboy side of him. In the other movies, Patrick Stewart‘s Xavier is always The Great Mentor. Those of you unfamiliar with Fassbender (most of you will remember him either from 300 or as the British officer involved in that great bar scene from Inglourious Basterds), best get used to seeing him a lot in the next couple years. He is the latest actor that Hollywood is trying desperately to make a movie star out of, and for the first time in a long time, I hope in this instance that they succeed. This guy has it all, and in the end, First Class is his movie. His Magneto is exactly what I wanted, and it was also cool seeing this character in action as a younger, more vital man (one who speaks 4 different languages in the movie!). No disrespect to Ian McKellen, of course, who was superb in the role in different ways.
Notice that I was able to avoid the now-popular Michael F. Assbender jokes. But seriously, learn his name, because he may be the single most in demand actor in the industry right now. And he’s got the talent to back up that demand.
–Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I didn’t realize going in that Bacon was going to be the primary villain. I loved every minute of him in this movie, especially in the beginning, when he’s a German concentration camp officer as a young Erik Lensherr learns firsthand what humanity is capable of. I was most impressed by his near perfect German accent and his delivery of the language. He clearly had a lot of fun filming that stuff. Later on, he’s a more typical scheming comic book villain, but he’s a believable and worthy foe, and that’s all we really needed. I know Bacon has done villain work before, but to carry the primary baddie role in a huge movie like this? That’s certainly a first for him, and I thought he was excellent. I like that he’s the one that creates the telepath immunity helmet Magneto will later take as his own.
He didn’t spend 6 years in evil medical school to be called Mister, thank you very much.
–Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Other than Xavier and Magneto, she has the strongest character arc and the most to do. For those of us who saw Winter’s Bone, there’s no surprise that she’s so good here, but she’ll truly hit the big time next spring as the star of the first Hunger Games movie. I like her early friendship with Xavier (though I do find it dubious he considers her “just a friend” and was able to resist being attracted to her all those years), and I bought how she eventually came around to Magneto’s way of thinking. When she joins him for good at the end of the movie in her “turn to the dark side” moment, I bought that as well. She’s fantastic, and I’d say she has a bright future, but with an Oscar nomination at age 20 and prominent roles in two big franchise movies, that future is now. I just hope she’s not stuck doing only X-Men and Hunger Games movies for the next 5 years, though it’s entirely possible.
-I liked most of the other mutants. I say most because I hated one (see below), thought another was completely wasted, and was utterly confused by a third. We’ll get into that in a minute. Nicholas Hoult was really good as Hank McCoy and later in some fantastic makeup as Beast. He gets the most character development of all the secondary characters. Lucas Till made good use of little screen time as Alex Summers/Havok (I assume this is Cyclops‘ future dad?), and Caleb Landry Jones was okay as Banshee, though he’s mostly relegated to the role of comic relief. Sebastian Shaw’s mutant henchmen had almost nothing to do character-wise, but Jason Flemyng certainly looked cool in makeup as Azazel (future father of Nightcrawler).
–The 1960’s period art direction. It’s refreshing to see a big summer movie done completely in period. You often see these movies with futuristic settings and technology, or set in medieval/ancient times (Gladiator, Troy, etc.), but rarely do we see these movies set in the 60’s and 70’s (we’ll get another 70’s-set summer extravaganza this week in Super 8). They did a fantastic job putting us in that time period. A lot of people have said parts of the movie feel like an old James Bond flick, and I can see the comparison. You especially feel it inside Shaw’s secret, diabolical submarine. I half-expected him to sit there in the captain’s chair with his pinky in his mouth, Dr. Evil style. He clearly had sharks with frickin laser beams on their heads somewhere inside that thing. Other times, some of the sets had a very 2001/Clockwork Orange/Dr. Strangelove Kubrickian tone to them.
–The visual effects. Were excellent. ‘Nuff said. Because a lot of movies nowadays are rushed to completion because of predetermined release dates they MUST meet, many of them are often lacking in the overall quality of their visuals. For the most part, that is not the case here. Vaughn even cleverly uses some of his effects shots in ways that most directors doing their first big effects flick seldom do. Case in point is Hank McCoy’s big transformation into Beast, which I thought was cleverly shot as a POV sequence. Very cool.
-The Hugh Jackman/Wolverine cameo. I’m sooo glad I didn’t know about this going in. (And sorry if I just ruined it for you, but you were warned about spoilers)This was quite literally one of the best cameos I’ve ever seen. Just brilliant. It was quick, it was efficient, it made sense within the context of the plot, and it was restrained.
There was also a very subtle, but cool blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Rebecca Romijn cameo during one of Mystique’s transformations that I thought was very well-placed. She really does look like an older Jennifer Lawrence.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
–Zoe Kravitz as Angel. Let’s just say she wasn’t up to par, particularly when surrounded by a group of such great actors. I’m wondering, what exactly are her credentials, other than being Lenny Kravitz‘s daughter? Because being cast in a major motion picture should require more than that. Second, I think Angel is just a lame character, at least as shown here. I know they had to scrape the barrel for the secondary mutants (as obviously people like Cyclops, Colossus and Storm can’t be introduced until years later in this storyline), but surely they could have thought of SOMEONE better than this. Apparently not, so instead we have a mediocre actress playing an uninteresting character. Not a good combination. Was I supposed to give a shit when she turned bad? Cuz I didn’t. Speaking of which, I had to laugh later on in the film when she’s supposed to look intimidating flying around with her mosquito wings, spitting fire loogies at people.
-I also could have gone without Tornado Man, aka Alex Gonzalez as Riptide. I don’t think he has a single line of dialogue, and all he really does is walk around with his best “evil mutant” face, and occasionally twirling his hands around to create mini twisters. I dunno, it was just cheesy. They should’ve found another evil mutant or just given someone else more screen time in his place.
–Darwin’s death. Sigh. Do I just go full on rant mode here or try to exercise restraint? Ehhh, who am I kidding? So one of the mutants Xavier and Magneto recruit is Darwin (played by Kenyan actor Edi Gathegi), whose power is to…adapt to his surroundings (e.g. if he sticks his head into an aquarium he grows gills). Unfortunately, this power is not put to any practical use…until it’s time for him to sacrifice himself for the white mutants. Of course! What I’m getting at is that once again, I have to sit through a situation where the only motherfucking black male in the group of main characters dies FIRST and dies prematurely. Are you fucking kidding me with this shit?! Let’s put this in perspective; you’ve got the black female playing the weakest, least interesting mutant, and the black male mutant being underutilized and killed off early. Fuck you. I love this shit. Almost every major player in Hollywood is openly liberal, yet time after time after time, we are forced to put up with completely whitewashed casts, with the minority characters (a vast majority of the time) forcefully inserted either to meet a race quota (which is typically 1) or simply to act out racial/ethnic/cultural stereotypes. The hypocrisy of it is stunning, and I’ve f’ing had it. Put this cliché to BED, and take your fake white liberal guilt and shove it up your ass. I’m done with rich white liberals, three words that constitute quite the oxymoron. STOP. KILLING. THE. COLORED. GUY. FIRST. COCKSUCKERS.
-I got a little tired of Xavier putting his fingers on his head every time he used his powers (as if he were pressing the “telepathy ON” button), but I suppose he had to do something other than intently squinting his eyes. I suppose. I don’t recall this being an issue with the earlier films, but I guess I’ll have to go back and watch em again (the first two, anyway).
-Once again we have an X-Men movie without a memorable score or set of themes. I guess it’s just not meant to be. I guess it’s too much to ask. Composer Henry Jackman (who also did the music for Vaughn’s Kick-Ass) has crafted a perfectly competent score that hits the right marks at the right times. Problem is, I don’t remember one note of that score, and thus have no desire to own it. Am I crazy in thinking there should be an awesome X-Men theme (the cartoon had one!) and that Magneto should have his own “Imperial March”? I don’t think so, brah.
I rest my case:
Going forward into the summer, there’s some potential with the other two big comic book movies, with Alan Silvestri scoring Captain America and James Newton Howard working on Green Lantern. Silvestri has created some of the greatest themes in movie history (Back to the Future, Predator, Forrest Gump, etc.) and James Newton Howard is James Newton Howard.
WHAT CONFUSED ME
–January Jones as Emma Frost. It’s like, I think she’s a good actress, but I still can’t say for sure, even after seeing her twice now this year (she was in Unknown if you’ve already forgotten). That’s probably a bad sign that I’ve subconsciously chosen to ignore it because I think she’s gorgeous. Logic dictates that she isn’t really trying, her part wasn’t written well enough, or she’s just not very good. Those are the only options. I haven’t yet gotten around to watching Mad Men (for which she’s received 2 Golden Globe nominations), which I guess would be the best evidence for or against her having any talent. I mean, okay, she looks good in her ridiculously out of place white outfits, and I thought the “diamond person” effects were actually pretty solid. She also has a couple of good moments where she uses her telepathy, most notably the scene with the Russian general.
One more thing about her character: why the fuck does she disappear during the climax of the movie?! Through the whole movie, she’s shown as being Sebastian Shaw’s Number 2, the one he cares about most, but when it all comes to a head she’s sitting on the bench. Okay, so we see her in CIA custody, she overhears two guys talking about a war with mutants, then cuts a little hole through the one-way glass with her diamond finger and taunts them, and then…she’s gone. She can cut a hole through the window with her diamond finger, but apparently has no desire to further use her considerable powers to escape. When we next see her, at the very end of the movie, she’s literally laying down on a slab, just chillin’, when Magneto and his boys come and rescue her. Did no one else notice this?
No really, this actually happens in the movie. (I couldn’t get the fuckin thing to embed.)
-This movie does nothing to explain why a kid growing up in Westchester, New York has a British accent. I’m talking to you, Charles Xavier.
-I don’t know if this really confused me more than it did simply amuse the F out of me. LOL, why does Havoc do a techno dance as he’s using his power?
-At the end of the movie, Moira MacTaggert (as played by the lovely Rose Byrne) promises Xavier she’ll never reveal where he and the other mutants are hiding. My question…why would they need her to in the first place? The CIA knows his name, because he just f’n worked with them. Yet no one in the government will think to look for him at his family’s gigantic estate?! Am I the only one who instantly thought of this?
So, where does the series go from here? I honestly don’t know. Obviously, they’ll want to keep this cast together for probably 2 more movies, which means they can’t skip ahead in time to the 2000’s and bring in Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue or the other more popular X-Men characters. The writers will have to come up with more period storylines, presumably one set in the 70’s for the next film. I have no idea where that will go, except to beg the filmmakers not to make the Vietnam War a major plot point. Anything but that for the love of God! Regardless, for now we have another solid X-Men movie, and in this dismal moviegoing year, we can at least be thankful for that.
I don’t have an official list, but this is easily one of the top 10 comic book movies ever, maybe top 5. I have to see it again before I definitively place it, but I’m not on board with those who say it’s the best X-Men movie. It might be better than the first one (only slightly if it is), but X2 is still the best in the series, and still the second best comic book movie ever, behind the almighty Dark Knight.