Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class - Movie Review

The latest movie in the X-Men franchise opened to theatres this week. X-Men: First Class promised to show us how the two older characters, Magneto and Professor X, originally met in their young age, as well as introducing a new set of characters (as well as bringing back some old faces). Set in the 1960's, the movie is intended to work as a prequel to the other three films. How did it fare on all these accounts? Hit the jump to see the full review.

X-Men: First Class

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jeniffer Lawrence and more.

As I said in the introduction, the film is set in the 60's, along with some early scenes set in 1944. We start off with a young Charles Xavier, living comfortably in his Westchester state, and Erik Leshnerr, facing the horrors of the Holocaust. Face forward some years, and the two have grown up to be formidable young adults and quite capable with their mutant powers though in entirely different ways. Because of this, they get involved in a political conspiracy, which finds the CIA hiring the two mutants to both find other mutants, and stop the powerful Hellfire Club. The stakes are notoriously high, as it is set on the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, and if they don't stop the machinations of Sebastian Shaw, the leader of the Hellfire Club, a nuclear armageddon is the most likely outcome. That's the general outline, but I'll divide the review into the things I liked and those that I didn't.

Magneto, Nazi Hunter

Some of the most thrilling parts from the movie come from Magneto's earlier adventures hunting for the men that tormented his life as a young boy in the Jewish concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Erik, wonderfully portrayed by Michael Fassbender, travels around the world, hunting for these Nazis in exile, working his way up the ladder until he finds the man responsible for killing his mother. Honestly, I could have watched a whole movie of him just going around the world getting his revenge of them. Of course, the big irony is that we know that he is becoming just as sadistic and violent as his captors, but for the time being, the movie makes good of these thrilling scenes and it is very easy to sympathise with Erik's righteous anger. As a small anecdote, there's a scene set in Argentina (a country where lots of Nazis escaped after World War II) with Erik going after some Nazi guards, in a city called Villa Gesell, which I have been to. I was amused to find it portrayed as a mountain town, even though it's a beach town.

Xavier's Love for Mutations

Charles Xavier is fascinated with mutations, and his big brain can't help but want to find out more. Of course, this is not the Professor X that we all know, but a young man fresh off college, and the whole world is literally an open book for him. James McAvoy portrays the cocky Charles who tries to impress almost the ladies he runs into with his knowledge of mutations (repeating the same pick-up lines). However, that love also extends into fascination with young mutants and their power. The montage of him finding them using Cerebro and training them is highly entertaining, and you can't help to be infected by Charles eagerness and happiness to find so many other people like him. At the same time, the young Charles is discovering the limits and the ethics of his powers, while at the same time controlling the more violent impulses of his friend Erik.

The Feminine Mystique

While the two lead actors carry the weight of the movie and some of the best parts, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, who plays one of the most conflicted roles in the movie. Raven is a whole mess of emotions, hormones, and conflicting feelings towards the people around her. She clearly has romantic feelings towards Charles, who just sees her as a young sister, which become convoluted once the charismatic Magneto comes in and makes her question her very identity. Added into the mix is also Hank McCoy (a.k.a. Beast) portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, who sees Mystique as a fascinating individual. This search for identity, love, and acceptance is paramount to the X-Men franchise, and Raven exemplifies all aspects of that equation in her quest to find what she really wants in life. Ultimately, the decision hers and hers alone, but it's very easy to identify with her, considering her situation.

All-New All-Too-Many X-Men

There's quite a big cast, and with Charles, Raven, and Erik stealing all the good bits, it was inevitable that the others would get less scree time. However, I was surprised with how many characters they bothered to introduce but not expand at all. Indeed, a big part of the cast just feels to be there only to provide some big action scenes and some comedic relief, such as Havok and Banshee, or others to provide some artificial dramatic scenes, such as Darwin's death and Angel's “betrayal” (both of which happen five minutes after they join the team). I'm not even counting the two almost-speechless villain henchmen, Riptide and Azazel (who steals Nightcrawler's trick from X2 by taking out a building full of security guards). The only real stand out is the scientist Hank McCoy, who plays the loveable but self-hating nerd.

It's All Part of the Plan?

The big villain of the piece is none other than Sebastian Shaw, portrayed by Kevin "Footloose" Bacon himself. Shaw is the leader of the Hellfire Club, an influential elite group that is acting behind the scenes of both the American and Soviet governments. Bacon's portrayal is suitably Machiavellian, though not necessarily very logical. His final plan is to create a nuclear holocaust, because he thinks that the use of atomic bombs will help kick-start the mutant gene. Once the numbers of mutants have swelled, he will (obviously) lead over them. Several things do not make sense here. First, if he believes atomic bombs make more mutants, shouldn't there have been a whole load of mutants in Japan? Second, even in 1962, there were plenty of atomic bombs on both sides that open warfare would have lead to a nuclear holocaust decimating all of Earth (enjoy ruling over a barren Earth, Sebastian). And finally, since Shaw had a TELEPATH on staff (Emma Frost), why did he bother with this incredibly complicated plan manipulating both sides, when he could have just had Frost mind control some high ranking officials and simply declare war?

SFX & Cliches

One of the biggest problems, at least to me, was that the movie was full of clich├ęs. Several characters scream in pain and/or agony for far too long, going deeply into parody territory, or the fact that the black guy of the film gets killed first (if you don't count nameless goons). There is even a training montage set to upbeat music and characters looking deeply in each others' eyes in the beach. It's hard to know if the directors had their tongue firmly planted on their cheek or not.

While the overall look of the film was strong and the 60's set pieces and costumes superb, I found the special effects department to be underwhelming and disappointing. One of the biggest offenders was probably Emma Frost's transformation into diamond, which kept popping up like an eyesore across the screen. Banshee's flying scenes seemed perfectly fine and provided nice visual scenes, but once Angel got into the air, things looked very silly for everyone involved. Beast and Azazel looked like cosplayers in a convention. It's just not the quality we have come to expect from a major blockbuster film like this one.

Verdict – Check It. Some very strong acting roles could not save what I thought was a far too convoluted and unnecessarily busy story. The movie shines when Charles and Erik take centre stage, but everything else felt superfluous and not fully thought out. It's not a bad movie (and better than X3), but it falls short of becoming something great. I had an entertaining time at the theatre, but I doubt I'll go out of my way to watch it again.

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Bill said...

I hated what the Shaw story did to Magneto. (major spoilers, obviously)

I like Magneto because he's a sympathetic villain. Xavier wants humans and mutants to get along, Magneto doesn't think it's possible, and we understand why, because he's seen the worst of humanity in the holocaust, which cost him his parents.

In First Class, Schmidt/Shaw shoots his mom right in front of Erik, and then uses Erik as a lab rat (we're told, we don't see those scenes). There is no one on earth Erik hates more than this guy.

So I was hoping he would never find out that his tormentor was a mutant, and that his hatred of Shaw, unbeknownst to Erik, would ironically cause him to turn out just like Shaw.

Instead, Erik does find out that he's a mutant. What should be a cathartic event which allows him to realize that mutants, deep down, are no better than normal humans, doesn't register at all with Erik.

Additionally, he learns about Shaw's plans and thinks "even though I hate this guy more than anyone else who ever lived, I'm going to be just like him, because I'm apparently an idiot."

(nothing against Fassbender, though, he did a great job)

Matt Duarte said...

"Instead, Erik does find out that he's a mutant. What should be a cathartic event which allows him to realize that mutants, deep down, are no better than normal humans, doesn't register at all with Erik."

That is a very, very good point.

Naymlap said...

I liked the movie quite a bit.
The recruiting scenes were great, especially the {spoiler} scene.
Vaughn has been considered a poor man's Guy Ritchie, and I think it actually works in his favor in this movie. There's all the giddy stylistic flourishes, but the emotional resonance comes from the quieter scenes that don't have any of that flair. Really it was the actors (especially Fassbender) that carried the weight. Vaughn just made it fun.
I may have been the only one to notice it, or at least I haven't read any reviews that talk about it. But Xavier is a real prat in the movie. It's a subtle thing, and I think its the start of the gulf between him and Erik. It's small things like the fact that won't let Raven drink. It made Erik's radicalism a lot more sympathetic.

Boothy said...

This review is spot on.

Arsyn said...

You've pretty much confirmed my own thoughts on the movie so far without seeing it. But I've learned to never expect too much from movie adaptions of books or graphic novels. Thanks for the review though, It's made me a bit more inclined to watch the movie!

Retcon Joe said...

It is what it is... a movie. Truly, I liked it. Sometimes a little over the top and sometimes a little lacking but all in all a good show. I'm not sure how we get estimates of dollars earned for a movie but the 2 theaters this movie was playing in (where I live) have been full since Friday and this is Tuesday. By the way did Stan The Man make a cameo? Didn't see if him if he did.

watch movies online said...

Wow. That was really, really good.

Chris Jackson said...

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