X-Men: First Class (Review)

First Class explores the friendship between Xavier and Magneto with often thrilling results

After a heartbreaking and disappointing third entry (The Last Stand) as well as an unnecessary spin-off (Origins: Wolverine), Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, is a step in the right direction for the X-Men franchise, returning to more of a character-oriented focus which feels like a breath of fresh air when compared to the recent X-Film disasters.  Still, there are a few major stumbles that hinder it from being a complete success, due in large part to what feels like a rushed production as well as some inconsistent writing, causing certain portions of the film to fall flat while others soar high.

Michael Fassbender's performance as Magneto is the film's greatest asset

Opening with a shot-for-shot remake of the first scene from Brian Singer’s original film, First Class begins with a focus on Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and his traumatic childhood in a WWII concentration camp, demonstrating how he came to discover his incredible mutant ability to control and manipulate metal.  Simultaneously, Charles Xavier is introduced as a child with unnatural telepathic abilities, and finds an early friend in the self-conscious shape-shifter Raven (a.k.a. Mystique).  From here we watch as both characters grow into adults, learning more about themselves and their powers until they eventually meet (during a breathtaking action sequence) and decide to work towards a new era of tolerance and acceptance for mutants in the world.  They find and train a team of young mutants who will eventually become the first X-Men as they try to stop the evil Sebastian Shaw and his mutant entourage bent on terrorism and destruction.  All of this is set to the political backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the ’60s, which provides a welcome revisionist take on American history and works to ground the film in a realistic world.

James McAvoy is fantastic as Charles Xavier, the founder of the X-Men

With this basic premise as it’s overarching story, First Class unfortunately ends up feeling like a collection of separate films mashed together, which I blame largely on the overly ambitious script.  The first third of the film focuses much more on Xavier and Lehnsherr’s separate lives, with Lehnsherr chasing Shaw across the globe in what feels at times like a throwback to golden-era Bond films.  These early Magneto scenes are some of the film’s best, thanks in large part to Michael Fassbender’s assured and show-stealing performance, wherein he transitions from a victim to a cold-blooded killer yet still somehow maintains his sense of humanity.

However, things quickly change tone once Xavier and Magneto set out to recruit mutants for their school, becoming much lighter and more akin to typical superhero films, complete with some fun montages and a few surprising cameos.  Unfortunately the writing isn’t very consistent across all these different portions of the film, causing Xavier and Lehnsherr’s stronger and more complex scenes to nearly be undermined by those focusing on the teen mutants, which feel almost childish by comparison.  A perfect example is the cheesy scene where the teens arbitrarily choose their X-Men code names.  I mean, is that really how Magneto is supposed to have gotten his name?  Thankfully, the phenomenal climax serves to amend these problems for the most part, with several jaw-dropping action sequences and a heavy dramatic confrontation between the film’s two leads which quite nearly causes us to forget its previous slip-ups.

Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw and January Jones' Emma Frost lack a truly menacing edge

Kevin Bacon’s lackluster performance as the villainous Sebastian Shaw leaves something to be desired as well, offering some thrills but growing tired over the course of the film despite his fascinating and nearly indestructible mutant powers.  January Jones also does a horrible job as Emma Frost, Shaw’s telepathic femme-fatale.  The tornado-throwing henchman Riptide is largely forgettable, although Azazel (a red incarnation of the fan-favourite Nightcrawler) stands out thanks to several exciting sequences which show off his spectacular powers.  One scene in particular involving multiple teleportation-murders still stands out in my memory.

In fact, if there’s one thing I am very thankful for, it’s that director Matthew Vaughn really indulges in the “cool” factor of each of the mutants’ gifts.  He clearly has more fun with the mutants than any previous X-directors have in their respective films, delivering several visceral action sequences that remain creative while accentuating the wide range of awesome things that these characters are capable of.  The fun “training” montage is a perfect example of this, and remains a highlight of the film, culminating in the powerful and memorable scene where Xavier helps Magneto to properly control his powers through a balance of his emotions – a key moment in the growing friendship between the two characters.

Fassbender shines as Magneto in the film's powerful final act

Ultimately, X-Men: First Class is the kind of film that will completely blow you away one moment, only to make you roll your eyes the next.  When it works, it grabs hold of you and delivers the kind of big kinetic thrills you want to see in a summer blockbuster, combined with an added level of depth and emotionality that is rare for a film produced by Fox.  However, a few weak patches emerge here and there to muddle what would otherwise be a near-perfect film, resulting in an experience that is largely enjoyable though decidedly flawed.  It is surely a step in the right direction for the X-Men franchise, although I can’t help but wonder what it could have been if Fox would have given Vaughn a bit more time to smooth out the rough edges and create something truly unforgettable.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

X-Men: First Class (2011, USA, 132 min).  Directed by: Matthew Vaughn.  Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Jason Flemyng.


~ by Mark D'Amico on June 9, 2011.

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