Having grown up with the lore of the X-Men, especially during writer Chris Claremont and artist Jim Lee’s reign in the 90’s, I feel that I have a significant investment in the characters and know more than an average fanboy on Marvel’s favorite mutants. That being said, I checked out of reading the series many years ago as it just became way too much to keep up with. A team never stayed comprised of the same members for very long (save Wolverine, who was on nearly ALL of them) and it became too much of a soap opera (with mutant powers) to keep my interest.
That being said, I find myself dipping into one of the titles from time to time, just to see if it’s worth jumping in again. Despite some top notch creators working on the book it’s just too far convoluted to simply ease back in. Therein lies the problem with the X-world as a whole. There are so many shifts in story, character, and history that it’s near impossible to keep track of anything. In translating any of the X-Men history to the big screen, one has to let go of many of the things they held so near and dear to their little nerd hearts, because there’s no way to please everyone.
I thought the first X-men was a noble effort, but fell short in many areas. It wasn’t big enough in scope for me and for all the people dangling off of director Bryan Singer’s bag o’ nuts, I am not one of them. I think he’s overrated and under talented and lacks the visual style needed to really fully realize a big budget film. His smaller films (Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) are much more in tune with his vision. However, I think his follow up, X2, is still the most superior of all the X-Films, as he was somehow able to amp up the action and style to a high degree and deliver a strong and refined film that was able to please fans and non-fans alike.
X3 was a disaster in every sense of the word. Hiring Bret “we can’t find anyone else” Ratner to paint-by-numbers the chillingly wasted closing chapter of the “oh-fuck-not-another-one” trilogy, we were left with a face that looks very much like what you’d see if you had just seen Jay Davison’s dick in “The Crying Game.” Unless you’re into that sorta thing, then smile away you happy-go-lucky X3 lover.
X-Men Origins Wolverine (for FUCKS SAKE, why couldn’t it just be Wolverine?) was a rushed mess as well, running at mach speed to get through the history of the most troubled and convoluted character in all of the X-Men universe. If it weren’t for Hugh Jackman, who is awesome in the role, the franchise would’ve languished right alongside the first Captain America movie from the 90’s. Okay, it’s not THAT bad, but it’s not that good either.
Which brings us to First Class, the time trip origin story of the beginning of the X-Men, only this time with different, more obscure characters that most people have never heard of, because they’ve already used everyone else up in the other films. Got all that? The good news is that the film works. Bringing in director Matthew Vaughn, who’s been attached to X3 and Thor in the past before passing, was the smartest move FOX could’ve made. He brings an energy and geek fervor to the franchise that doesn’t necessarily redefine the genre, but certainly makes clever and bad ass use of its attributes.
Casting a few Brits in the lead roles, James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Vaughn gave the film more weight than it ever should’ve had. McAvoy and Fassbender KILL IT as these characters and bring tears, rage, and passion to the parts that were originally embodied by two old fogeys in the original films. Fassbender, who you may recall from Inglorious Basterds, Centurion, and 300, owns the role of Magneto in a more raw and powerful way than Gandalf ever could (mostly because he’s, y’know, old and stuff). His gravelly voice and deathly stare matched with the evil charm he brings to the role sells it completely for me. McAvoy plays Professor X with a flair and humor that is not seen by Patrick Stewart’s later (earlier) role and humanizes the old man, making him more than some bald-headed telepath in a wheelchair.
I was surprised at how large Kevin Bacon’s role was as Sebastian Shaw, the energy-absorbing mutant leader of the Hellfire Club. Bacon has always been seven degrees from everything, so it’s no surprise that he turns in a stellar performance here (and even speaks pretty decent German and Russian to boot!). In many ways, his Shaw is something of a predecessor to Magneto’s ultimate mission, which is the embracing of mutant kind and the decimation of humankind. It’s a great dynamic between the two.
So, Kudos to Fassbender, McAvoy, and Bacon. Now, let’s strip some away. Especially from January Jones, the piece of ass that plays Emma Frost, The White Queen. Emma Frost is an evil force to be reckoned with in the comics, a telepath with an attitude and strength that is never fully realized by Ms. Jones. Does she look good in lingerie? Yes. Does she say her lines without stuttering? Yes. Is she a great actress? No. She doesn’t embody the wit, intelligence, and evil power of Emma Frost, but merely emotes a very small amount of it. Unfortunate, but it’s not a game changer.
The back-up villains, however, are mere mannequins that move. Yeah, they do some cool stuff (a teleporter and a weather dude) but you can hardly remember their names and they say very little if anything at all. I don’t need to know everything about these characters, but a little something wouldn’t hurt to make me give two shits. As it was, they were window dressing.
Unfortunately, the same goes for the newly recruited second tier X-Men. There’s a black guy who turns into a fish or something. Yeah, he dies. Then, there’s a chick that has insect wings and calls herself Angel, but is obviously not the original version wasted in X3. Alex Summers/Havoc and Banshee show up, neither one of them divulging anything in the way of back story. They are merely X-characters not yet used in a movie. It is never eluded to that Havoc is Cyclops brother, but then again, the fact that Havoc becomes an X-Man before Cyclops is just silly anyways.
Banshee looks and acts just like Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies, but does little more. The only two real standouts of the new cast are Jennifer “holy shit my career is blowin’ up” Lawrence as Mystique and Nicolas Hoult as Beast, both of whom share a brief romance and a conflict of identity, which is a common X-theme. I felt their scenes were handled well and the overall arc for both was satisfying to the end.
All casting aside, the other strengths of First Class are the action and the pacing. Vaughn knows how to put together some hyper-stylized action set within reality (see Kick Ass) and puts his VFX team to the test here. There aren’t any really new or exciting set pieces, but everything is executed with thought and precision. Even though Vaughn claims he was in a mad dash to finish the film on time, I never felt that it was just tossed together. The pacing was fast and fun, but not overly so. The clear nods to 60’s style and vibrancy was alive and well, with Vaughn’s desire to direct a James Bond films shining through on multiple occasions. In many ways this is a spy thriller more so than a comic book adaptation. To call it an adaptation is a loose term anyways, as very little lines up with the comic book continuity. However, as I stated at the beginning of the review, continuity has always been a problem for the X-franchise, especially in comic book form.
Pats on the back are earned thoroughly by the VFX crew and composer Henry Jackman, who delivers a score finally deserving of an X-Film, providing theme and excitement to the action and drama, rather than playing out as an annoying hack track in an elevator. Well done, sir.
There is plenty of X-men lore to be explored, a few clever nods, one blatant one, and some surprisingly emotional scenes in First Class, making it one notch below X2 as a far as the pecking order of X-films go. The only thing that keeps it from inching to the top is the ragtag group of forgettable mutants. The first three films definitely had the A-list characters to play with, but that’s not to discredit what Vaughn does with them, albeit not enough in the character development area.
First Class is a great first start to getting the X-franchise back on its feet in a respectable and entertaining fashion. Keeping it alive will be the next trick for Fox. Hopefully, they’ll go the extra mile to conserve some consistency and build upon what’s great, while kicking out that which isn’t.
SUMMER MOVIE SCORE: 8/10