Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: X-Men: First Class

Non Spoiler Review:
Bryan Singer made a couple of the best super-hero movies ever with his X-Men and X2, and after the train wreck of X-Men: The Last Stand, having him back to this franchise is a treat. That he chose to make a prequel—and a period-piece set during the Cuban Missile Crisis—is pretty risky. What we get is quite a thorough origin story crossed with James Bond shenanigans.

The cast is impressive. James McAvoy is the new, young Charles Xavier (Professor X), with his foil Michael Fassbender as Eric (Magneto). The remaining mutants are rounded out with Kevin Bacon as villain Sebastian Shaw, with the likes of January Jones as a very Betty Draper Emma Frost.

Considering an original Magneto movie was initially on the drawing board and eventually abandoned, this is pretty much what we get. The film picks up just as X-Men did, in the concentration camp where Eric first displays his powers. But this time we see he's being watched by Bacon's character, who experiments on Eric to develop him to his full potential. In contrast, Charles Xavier grows up in wealth and luxury. One night he stumbles upon a burglar whom he realizes is someone just like himself—a mutant. Jump ahead to 1962, and Sebastian Shaw has a plan to bring the United States and the Soviets to the brink of war by suggesting missiles be placed in Turkey and Cuba. At the same time, events conspire to throw Eric and Charles together, along with a host of good and evil mutants, and the film hits its stride as their two ideologies clash.

To get straight to the point, First Class is fantastic. It works on a variety of levels, and the whole World War III plot is actually the least interesting of them all. The retro setting, James Bond spy stuff, and the origins of the X-Men made for an entertaining and particularly emotionally appealing film. Given it's Bryan Singer, his affinity for these characters and how to handle them is no surprise.

First Class was paced quite well. Considering so much character development was jammed into it, the movie didn't feel long at all, and I would easily have accepted more scenes focusing on the training and relationships of the group at Charles' mansion.

Singer has taken pains to ensure it matches up with the previous trilogy's continuity. Aside from one or two instances (I'll mention later), he's quite successful. Fortunately, many mutations also come with the added benefit of longevity (Beast and Mystique), so their appearances some 40 years earlier are not problematic, and he's chosen characters who can be alive in both eras without much difficulty.

This feels like Magneto's movie. Eric's struggle with his past really held the film together. Where the viewers falls on the Charles/Eric outlook is up for debate, but I really got a sense that Eric's viewpoint was proven again and again, while Charles came across as somewhat naive in his outlook for mutant/human relations. Whatever the opinion, Singer delivers on the tragedy of their friendship and the ultimate war between them that is to come.

The cloud of betrayal and mutant angst hangs over everything as we watch these relationships develop and fail. Few super-hero films deliver this level of focus on character and not just their abilities. Charles' (and later Eric's) relationship with Mystique was an inspired addition, and her evolution as a character is more compelling given we know what's going to happen. Another great addition was Hank, and his transition into Beast.

The writing is strong enough to overlook some of the flaws in the film. As far as characters, January Jones looks pretty, but she really just channelled a super-powered Betty Draper. Some of the B-list mutants didn't really have a chance to make their mark. Of course, there's always the goofy mutants that are thrown in with quirky powers—oddly enough, I have no problem with a red-skinned teleporter, but the idea of someone who can grow gills near instantaneously takes me out of the movie.

Sebastian Shaw's plot to urge the super powers into nuclear war was a bit of a stretch, especially some of the scenes where military brass on both sides are blackmailed and provoked. But the story was engaging enough that disbelief can be suspended. And a little more care in getting the 60s right would have paid off. While the look was there, some of the scenes did come across a bit like modern day characters playing dress up.

It's a tough job making blue and red-skinned mutants in bright yellow costumes look believable on screen, but it works. I highly recommend seeing this, even if you're not fan, and you don't necessarily need to have seen the other films, though that would certainly make for a more fulfilling experience. The X-Men franchise has been reinvigorated, and the little details thrown in (and cameos) make this one worth a second look. While pains to align it with the other movies have been taken, there are a few hiccups that the viewer has to let slide...

Continuity Cop (Spoilers): The ending of the film does cause a problem with the beginning of X-Men: The Last Stand where Eric and Charles visit a young Jean Grey. Not only are the two socializing after their huge falling out, but Charles is walking. There are some other questionable events (the invention of Cerebro and the origin of Magneto's helmet) that contradict some of what Charles says in the first movie, but I'm all right with overlooking those given the strength of this film.

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