X-Men: First Class
Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Alex Gonzalez, Jason Flemyng, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathetgi, Lucas Till
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When the celeb-laden first X-Men film came out just over a decade ago, audiences were taken aback at how refreshing a superhero film could be when the story was spread across multiple heroes. After three sequels, one of which was a character-centric film about Wolverine, the series needed a fresh start and with First Class, our appreciation for multi-character storytelling is renewed.
The film opens with a re-worked scene from X-Men 2: X-Men United where a young Erik Lensherr is forcibly separated from his parents as they are taken to various concentration camps around Germany during World War II. A mangled iron gate leads a cruel Nazi doctor (Kevin Bacon) to pull Erik into his study where he experimented in an effort to figure out how his mutation worked.
Nearly twenty years later, a group of mutants calling themselves the Hellfire Club have gathered as the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war. Set just before and during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Hellfire Club, run by energy-absorbing mutant Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), plans to enhance the tensions and start a new world war in an effort to exert their dominance over homo sapiens. He’s supported by January Jones (Mad Men) as Emma Frost, a telepath who can turn herself into living diamond; Alex Gonzalez as Riptide, a wind and tornado controller; and Jason Flemyng (Primeval) as Azazel, a red-skinned devil-faced mutant able to teleport.
After the CIA discovers the Hellfire Club, Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) gets permission to seek advise from mutation expert Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), himself a powerful telepath (a fact he does not reveal to Moira and the CIA until later). Xavier brings with him Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a naturally-blue-skinned shapeshifter who can impersonate anyone. In their first nautical encounter with the Hellfire Club, they meet up with Erik (Michael Fassbender) who has been seeking revenge against the Nazi doctor for nearly twenty years. Teaming up, the CIA sets up a base of operations where Xavier can help locate and recruit several young mutants. With the help of Dr. Hank McCoy’s (Nicholas Hoult) “Cerebro” machine, which augments Xavier’s abilities, they find several mutants. They enlist the aide of Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), a dragonfly-winnged acid-spitter; Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), a sonic-voiced kid; Armando Munoz (Edi Gathegi), an environment-adaptive chameleon; and Alex Summers (Lucas Till), who can release a beam of pure red energy from his chest. Inexperienced, Xavier begins training all of them, including Erik, to control their powers and harness them for good.
It may seem like a lot to take in, but director Matthew Vaughn takes his time exploring each character. While Erik has the lion’s share of dramatic thrust, Xavier, Raven and Hank each get suitable development. It’s one of the reason the X-Men series has succeeded so well. Unlike Marvel’s other properties leading up to the new Avengers film, X-Men does not require separate, individual films to explore the various machinations, goals and desires of its players. Developing each as the film moves along allows the audience to fully immerse itself in one of the most varied and accessible comic franchises in film history. These youngsters aren’t your average popular kids. They are the misfits who are bullied and abused for being different. They struggle to fit in and go to extreme lengths to do so. The series shows young audiences (and even adult ones) what it means to accept each others’ differences.
Having the franchise’s first director (he crafted the first two and best films prior to First Class) Bryan Singer as a producer and story co-writer likely helped the effort, enabling a smooth continuity between films. While many of the comic’s elements were altered to make the film more marketable at the outset, there is no doubt that the creative team behind the film is committed to moving forward with its well established and exciting world.
Moving the series into the era of 50 years ago was a dangerous move. Many of today’s biggest blockbusters are set in the year in which they are released enabling audiences to more closely identify with the characters and situations. Yet, keeping with continuity it was impossible not to go back that far and it was a wise decision regardless of potential the ramifications. The sets and costumes are superb and without feeling antiquated, the film gives us the relevant events like a good history lesson while manipulating them into the plot in a compelling way.
The film’s performances are also top-notch, bringing in a number of talented young thespians. Bacon is obviously the most experienced in the cast and he does not disappoint. While some of his actions and dialogue are a bit outlandish, there’s a spark of humanity that gives him the depth great villains require. McAvoy and Fassbender have the most difficult tasks, creating younger versions of established characters Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). Trying to fill the shoes of two brilliant actors was difficult, but both did well. Fassbender nails the meatiest scenes and delivers a nuanced performance that even McKellen would be proud of.
Of the younger stars, Lawrence is obviously the standout. Hot off her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence makes the most of Raven, giving her several layers of depth. This performance, even in a Summer tentpole film, tells us that she’s not just a one-hit wonder. Hoult, who starred in the Oscar-nominated picture About a Boy opposite Hugh Grant and then rose to prominence on the British series Skins, gives a sustainable performance, though there are times when I don’t buy that he’s really been put upon as a young mutant.
The visual effects aren’t the sparkly, look-at-me effects we see frequently in films destined for high box office performance. Instead, we get more subtle, realistic effects. It may not be that original these days to see a massive submarine lifted out of the ocean or many of the other effects presented in the film, but the visual effects artists still manage to impress with their attention to detail and capability to blend them effortlessly with the rest of the film.
You aren’t likely to find a better franchise film this summer and, I’d be hard-pressed not to cite this as the best film in the X-Men series, barely surmounting the exceptional X2: X-Men United eight years ago. Matter of fact, I would even suggest that this is the best superhero film to date. While I admire The Dark Knight a great deal, it is a hard decision for me to place X-Men: First Class above it, which I do. First Class simply has more enduring emotional resonance than The Dark Knight, which gives it the slight edge.
June 30, 2011