Film Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’

Posted on June 4, 2011


X-Men: First Class

Summary: Slightly above-average mutant action romp that doesn’t take advantage of its setting.
Rating: 6.5/10

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the film.**

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the movie.

A group known as the Hellfire Club, led by a man named Sebastian Shaw, orchestrates a nuclear showdown between the United States and the U.S.S.R. during the 1960s that results in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a mutant, Shaw attempts to cause the annihilation of the common man so that mutants can take their place as successors to the world. The CIA recruits another mutant, a telepath named Charles Xavier, to help them collect a team of mutants to combat Shaw’s plans. During his mission, Xavier comes upon a mutant with the ability to manipulate metal and the Earth’s magnetic forces, Erik Lehnsherr, who shares his own past with Shaw and Xavier takes on as a partner. Detailing the origins of the X-Men, in a loose continuity, as we have come to know them on film, the movie sets up a showdown between Xavier and Lehnsherr’s group and Shaw’s band.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

As I’m sure many reviews about X-Men: First Class have begun, I didn’t go into the film with many expectations. While I enjoyed what were distinctly the first live-action comic book elements of current superhero film that actually felt comic-booky in X-Men: The Last Stand, amidst a pervasive dorkiness and second-rate filmmaking; and was entertained by the performances of Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber in the disjointed and misguided X-Men Origins: Wolverine, those last two films had me all but given up on the X-Men film franchise. I had my issues with the first two films – most notably the heavy lean on Wolverine – but felt that Singer produced two quality works that elevated the level of where these kinds of films could go.

The X-Men have always been one of my favorite Marvel properties. I discovered and got on-board with them during the late ’80s, specifically when the ‘Inferno’ arc was dominating the books and right after X-Factor had been formed with the original X-Men. I went forward and went back and got fully ensconced in the material and, at one point in the early ’90s, had begun plotting my own course for a filmed X-Men world. My first film would’ve started at the beginning, introducing Charles Xavier and showing him recruit that first class of five mutants for his school. It felt like a logical start but also gave opportunity to truly set up the philosophies of Xavier and his friend-cum-enemy Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto. The parallels to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were obvious but served a fitting dynamic for what was ultimately a story about hatred and acceptance and the opposing pursuits to find the proper place in the world for these “different” people.

When it was announced that Matthew Vaughn and company would be setting their film – what some have termed a “preboot”, a film that serves as both prequel and a reboot of sorts – in the ’60s, that gave me a jolt of excitment. As arguably the time period where the comic’s social commentary was its most potent – though the late ’70s, early ’80s period that produced the graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills was another powerful epoch – it felt fitting to revive the flagging franchise by coloring it with its origins. I have to say that while there are a number of wonderful design elements that recall the ’60s, I don’t find that Vaughn was that successful in really infusing his film with the culture or zeitgeist of that era. In fact, for the most part, the film felt just as modern as its predecessors but dressed in retro clothing.

This is felt no more so than in the eponymous group of recruits Charles and Erik bring in for the CIA. We’re never really given more than CliffsNotes of who they are as people, aside from Raven/Mystique and, to a smaller degree, Hank/Beast. We are treated to brief displays of their powers and all-too-brief scenes of three members overcoming obstacles toward controlling and taking advantage of these abilities. The script, by a gaggle of people including Vaughn, executive producer Bryan Singer, and part of the writing team for Marvel Studios’ much more fun and impressive Thor, doesn’t allow us to connect with what these powers mean to each teen and what their lives feel like in this era of outright discrimination and paranoia. In the one scene where we see these teens “connect” as they show each other their powers and come up with codenames – one of a handfull of admittedly inventive explanations for the X-Men trappings – it feels more like a clubhouse gathering of today’s hipsters. There was nothing giving a sense of tension to what would happen if their powers were discovered by the world at large nor informing what this opening to a broader world of people with abilities hidden amongst society meant to each. They hadn’t necessarily felt the ostracization of the world yet because the world was largely unaware of their existence, but each came across more like the cool kids at the party which undercut the whole premise of the film. It felt like a missed opportunity. When Darwin is killed during the raid on the CIA installation by Azazel and Riptide, it lacked any emotional depth or poignancy. Even Alex Summers seemed to be affected only on the surface.

(I suppose I’ll always be left to wonder what a film with the five original X-Men – Cyclops, the Warren Worthington Angel, Iceman, Beast, and Jean Grey the Marvel Girl – and their interaction as schoolmates and eventually a family would be like.)

Again, the exceptions to this are Raven and Hank. I think Jennifer Lawrence did a nice job with what she was given. While I feel that perhaps her struggle could’ve been notched up a bit more, I did appreciate that they gave her a valid reason for choosing the path she does in life. I also find it interesting that she tried to find some degree of normalcy in finding a mate, especially given how devoid of that need the future Mystique appeared in the first three films. (They hinted at a sexual and intimate relationship between Magneto and Mystique in the third film and made it more explicit here.) As for Hank, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Nicholas Hoult’s performance. I can’t tell if there just wasn’t more in the script or if it was edited down, but it felt a bit jagged and incomplete. Once he made the physical change into the blue-furred Beast, any character really seemed lost but for the moment he chokes Erik.

Sebastian Shaw is another who seems to be shorted by the lack of ’60s gravitas, becoming more an homage to the James Bond villains and ornamentation of the time period than a whole character himself. Kevin Bacon essays the role well enough but he’s never really given strong motivation. Sure, they pay lip service to the same driving factor that Erik Lensherr will, ironically, take on as his own, but there’s never a strong sense of why. One thing that really stood out about Ian McKellan’s portrayal of Magneto was that it made absolutely no sense to him that he was anything other than that “next step” in the evolution of humanity. This is something that Shaw should’ve had as well and that never came across in the movie. This forces the impact of the Hellfire Club to be diminished as they become just a group of mutant thugs for the sake of having an enemy in the film. His past as Klaus Schmidt serves as good motivation for Erik in his hunt to exterminate Nazis but it seems rather superfluous to the character of Shaw once the film moves to the ’60s.

All of this results in a plan to start nuclear war that is missing just how scary a time it was in America, in the U.S.S.R., and in the world at large back then. Setting up the Cuban Missile Crisis as a showdown that reveals the mutants to the powers that be in the world is actually quite a brilliant idea. As was setting the showdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in XMO: Wolverine to explain that reactor failure, though that wasted the opportunity as well. Giving the audience brief television news broadcasts about the U.S. missiles in Turkey, the embargo line between Cuba and Florida, and the movements of the Soviet ship with the missiles on it, gave some plot context but didn’t pervade the film with the sense of dread that the moment needed. The tension wasn’t there and, as a result, when the U.S. and Soviet navies are witness to the battle between Shaw’s group, Xavier’s group, and Magneto’s turn, it’s all very limp and hollow. There were impressive visuals throughout the scene but it hardly kept me on the edge of my seat.

The heart of the film, though, should have been – and tries to be at points – the friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. For a moment as touching as the scene where Charles enters Erik’s mind to help him find a place to focus his powers to move the satellite dish array, we get a scene of the two sitting on a bed in the champagne room acting like swingers. Of all the acting in the film, I thought James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender both were tops and I just wish we could’ve seen a even deeper connection between them. These two are what the film is all about and that final scene between them on the beach in Cuba, up to and including the moment Charles gets crippled by a deflected bullet, should’ve been absolutely heartbreaking. It was nearly there sheerly on the strengths of McAvoy’s and Fassbender’s performances. That single interaction where Erik is holding the wounded Charles and Xavier tells his friend that they don’t share the same beliefs was a soft, moving moment that should’ve been the pure basis for the entire interaction. With all said and done, there wasn’t the appropriate amount of time caught between the two characters throughout the movie to really pull that together. Both felt like mere pawns in the plot of the film and never really established the bedrocks of their philosophies on mutantkind. There were moments but the film seemed less concerned with that than trying to move along at a rapid pace. Heck, all of the things that Charles and Erik had supposedly developed together in their quest to find and help mutants were actually initiated by other people in this movie, further diminishing their roles.

In the end, X-Men: First Class is entertaining but not nearly as much as it seems to think it is. There are great moments sprinkled throughout but also moments where it reads kind of campy. (Re: the cameos – They got the desired guffaws and oohs-and-ahhs from about half of the packed audience I saw the film with.) It does manage to spark some life back into the franchise and I’d be interested to see where they go from here. If they want to make a full-out struggle between black hats and white hats throwing lightning bolts, teleporting, and calling down the very forces of nature upon each other, I’m all for that. Don’t try to sell it to me as something more than a showdown, though. However, if you really want to get at the struggle between the mutants and their place in the world of “normal man” on that philosophical level, then don’t be afraid to rely on the strength of your characters and let them live with each other. When you care about the people on-screen, it makes the times when you have them do cool things that much cooler. For a property where you can easily get lost in the spectacle, that makes all the difference in the world.

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