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Friday, June 3, 2011

The Uncanny ‘X-Men’ Begins

X-Men: First Class: 4 out of 5
Charles Xavier: Listen to me very carefully, my friend: Killing will not bring you peace.
Erik Lehnsherr: Peace was never an option.
Adding to the list of exciting comic films that are coming out during the packed summer of 2011, we now have the latest entry in the ­X-Men film franchise.  I find X-Men films to be among the tougher kinds of comic book films to make into films, as it involves the use of an ensemble cast and finding a way to best incorporate decade’s worth of history into a film that will satisfy both the casual audience and intense comic fans alike.  Fortunately, this film is a whole lot of fun.  Thanks to many very talented individuals, this newest take on the franchise manages to reset the series in many ways and take advantage of some previously unused potential.  The film still has similar problems that the other X-Men films have had, but the slam-bang action sequences, humor and drama (from within the realms of a comic book universe), and other filmmaking aspects have left an impression that should easily have many true believers excited for X-Men again.


Following the two films considered to be the weakest that this series has had to offer, X-Men: First Class is both a prequel and a reboot of sorts, which brings the series back to the 1960s.  The film has us following two different stories at first.  One story involves the newly minted Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), as he and his childhood friend, Raven (or Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence), are recruited by CIA Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) to use their knowledge of mutation to track down a powerful enemy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  Xavier is of particular interest, as he possess the abilities to read people’s minds and locate other individuals who posses special powers.  The other story involves Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who is on a globetrotting mission to take revenge on the Nazis involved in his suffering during WWII, with aspirations to kill the man behind it all – Sebastian Shaw.  Erik was taught through the use of torture and fear to harness his abilities to control magnetic fields, which has left him cold and in the pursuit of deadly justice.

The two, Erik and Charles, eventually cross paths, which leads them to a mutual understanding of finding others like them, in an effort to build a team that can train themselves to have a greater understanding of their abilities and work together to stop Shaw.  Shaw is a powerful mutant as well, with his own evil team that includes the deadly, but sexy Emma Frost (Jannuary Jones).  As the film has the Cuban Missile Crisis in use as a backdrop, our friends and foes will be taking important steps that manage to intersect with history, while also establishing the stakes for the future of both human and mutant kind.


There are a lot of very good things I have to say about this movie.  A lot of it is in response to the level of cool that seems apparent throughout the film.  Before the film’s release, it was stated many times that the 60s atmosphere would lend itself to a very James Bond-like feel for the film.  That is definitely apparent in the entire plot involving Erik.  I know for a fact that X-Men Origins: Magneto was in production up until First Class was given the go ahead, but while that project is no more, the script elements for that film have been incorporated into this film.  I would have loved to see that movie as a whole, because everything involving Erik’s journey is essentially what would happen were Stan Lee to have scripted out a James Bond adventure.  I could carry on talking about how much fun it is to see Magneto dropping in on bad guys in various spy-like ways, but suffice it to say, this area of the film got the job done.  It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the film is not too shabby either.
Charles Xavier:  How’s that for a magic trick?
The Man in Black:  Best I’ve ever seen.

Another great thing about this film is something that has not been as apparent in the previous films, which is the astonishing aspect of getting to see these mutants learn how to use their powers.  It should not be surprising, as this is basically the origin story for nearly ten different characters, but the other films never felt like much time was given to focusing on the wonder of what it meant to have special powers.  Seeing a number of fun montage sequences that revolve around this aspect was certainly welcome.  I should also highlight a well done scene that involves how Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) turns into Beast, as it is very well done and reminiscent of a werewolf transformation, which is just downright cool.

The comic book nature of this story was also a lot of fun.  Dealing with a new group of mutants (and it is actually refreshing to see an X-Men film that does not rely on Wolverine to save the day for a change), tackling both issues involving an evil supervillain bent on creating a new world order, while also incorporating elements of social commentary are classic reasons of how these comic books have functioned.  While I don’t think the film gets as thematically deep as it could, there are at least some strong ideas sprinkled throughout.  The way the film also decides to incorporate particular mutants and how they factor into the various action scenes or how their powers come into play is quite entertaining as well.  A whole new article can be written about the continuity of this film with the rest of the series (this is more or less a reboot that picks and chooses what to keep about the other films), as well as the way in which comic continuity is held up throughout.  It will be fun to see the various debates amongst devoted fans of the comic and what they believe works and does not work for this adaptation of the characters.


As far as the actors go, James McAvoy and particularly Michael Fassbender make for great characters.  McAvoy does a lot with a younger version of the intellectual godfather of all mutants, while Fassbender is just downright awesome as a man fueled by revenge, who is being helped along by Charles in an effort to calm himself and better utilize his potential.  I also really enjoyed Kevin Bacon as the villain of the piece.  He manages to work well into the film as what is pretty much a Bond villain, without going over-the-top (his opening scenes in German were particularly menacing in an enjoyable way).  Unfortunately, the women in this film serve more as eye candy than much else, besides delivering exposition.  Jennifer Lawrence as Raven does what she can, but the nature of her arc did not feel as impactful as it could have.  January Jones counters the appearance of her character by remaining mostly flat when it comes time for her to deliver lines.  Rose Byrne is a strong enough actress to have a solid presence, but sort of gets lost in the shuffle.  The physicality of some of the other actors is appropriate as well, but I was happy enough with Xavier and Lensherr as characters, since they are the core of this film.


Director Matthew Vaughn manages to bring a lot to this film.  Previously, Vaughn was on board to direct the third X-Men film.  He departed due to creative differences, but now having made Stardust and Kick-Ass, Vaughn is back and has certainly left his mark.  Given that this film only had a year to be made completely and released, I have noted many areas that suffer from poor dialogue moments, special effects that could have been stronger, and some overall tonal issues that mainly stem from the serious nature of the film’s story versus the lighter elements that make up the majority of the middle section of this film.  A smoother production timeline could have made a better impact in shaping some of the flaws in this film.  Regardless, it still comes off as quite an accomplishment for a film such as this to have been so well balanced in terms of crafting a large scale story, providing sufficient (and awesome) action moments, and keeping the whole film full of a lively spark and some clever filmmaking.


I do have one bigger issue.  I always feel that the toughest thing about making X-Men films is the idea of properly establishing a large list of characters, all with their own unique personalities and special abilities.  While other superhero and comic book films can get away with developing far fewer characters, these X-Men films lend themselves to a more intricate plot structure.  With that in mind, I feel like X-Men: First Class does tend to suffer from the same issue that the previous films have faced.  Even though the film is called ‘First Class’, I really did not care too much for any of the supporting characters who were a part of it.  Beyond getting to see characters like Banshee and Havoc in action, as they figured out how to harness their powers, the proper way to balance these characters in a story beyond finding clever ways to have specific powers work into action scenes remains an issue.  It is a tough thing to call into question, as these films revolve around what it is to be a team at many times, but the fact that the precise code for this has yet to be unlocked is why I can still hold onto other Marvel properties with higher regard.


These criticisms aside, X-Men: First Class is great blockbuster entertainment.  It is also a smartly crafted action film, which easily benefits from the presence of McAvoy and Fassbender in the lead roles (I can’t explain how much I am masking the fact that I want people to hands down embrace all of Fassbender’s previous work, since he will breakout big here).  Seeing mutants on the big screen again is a lot of fun and getting a chance to meld that with the narrative structure of a 60s spy feature is very cool as well.  The film is slickly made, long without feeling overly done, and has some really great memorable action moments.  A great restart to the series, perhaps the best X-Men film yet, but easily a lot of super powered fun and Xcitement.
Erik Lehnsherr:  If you’re using half your concentration to look normal, then you’re only half paying attention to whatever else you’re doing.  Just pointing out something that could save your life.

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