Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)


One would be tempted to say that X-Men: First Class (2011) is a nice return to form for a franchise that has suffered in its last two entries (2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but there's enough squandered potential to keep me from praising Matthew Vaughn's film as an unequivocal hit. It does make me wonder how the third film would have faired had Vaughn not been removed from the film and replaced with hired gun, Brett Ratner. Ratner's film squandered the goodwill and resources earned by (the producer of this film who receives a story credit) Bryan Singer, and the result is this semi-reboot that attempts to re-introduce us to characters we already know and love, while bringing back those alienated by the last two films; try as you might, the continuity of this film doesn't quite square with any of the films that came before (for one, certain revelations about character's relationships doesn't make any sense), but it doesn't completely break away from the movie conceptions of the characters. X-Men: First Class suffers from the reduced resources and a studio mandate that clearly shapes the progression of the film. The perceived failure of the "stand-alone" Wolverine film meant a return to the drawing board and the team dynamic. Hence, the back to the beginning "prequel" route that both tries to tell us what came before, but with enough variation to keep things original and fans guessing. Vaughn does a nice job of weaving a compelling tale about two mutants with different pasts and different philosophies, forced to join forces to defeat a greater threat. In fact, I would have been quite content to watch a film in which said two young mutants, Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), jet around the world, recruiting other mutants to battle Cold War threats to human and mutant-kind alike. The film is at its best as Eric hunts down those responsible for his mother's death in Nazi Concentration camps, leading to the film's big baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Bacon does his best as a pseudo-Bond villain (eschewing his character's more outrageous costumes from the comic books), presiding over the nefarious Hellfire Club for mutants bent on world domination. This includes the icily-beautiful, but unfortunately dull, January Jones as Emma Frost. Hitchcock would have loved her blonde charms and found some way to use them, but Vaughn leaves Jones out to dry, with little do do other than look "sexy" and scowl.

The film especially starts to suffer when the teenage mutants are introduced. For comic book fans, most of them are decidedly second-tier, and for non-initiates, both their powers and realization are somewhat poorly executed. Clearly, X-Men: First Class had a reduced budget; the make-up on characters like Azazel and Beast (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult, grown up and one of the few interesting young characters) looks cheap for such a big budget film, paling even next to the first couple entries in the series. This is especially a serious flaw, as the film attempts to re-introduce Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) as a childhood companion to Xavier, and centres the film's identity politics over whether she should embrace her natural blue form, or use her shape-shifting powers to hide herself as normal. Instead, I spent much of the film wondering why she didn't just wash the make-up and tear the cheap prosthetics from her side. Or, alternately the filmmakers could have taken the opportunity to reboot her physical appearance in some way. Additionally, Emma Frost's diamond form isn't quite as impressive as it should be, and distracts from the character.

The shoddy effects are especially egregious in a film that's ostensibly about flashy, bizarre-looking mutants and big scale action sequences (as you probably already know from the trailer, the film climaxes with the Cuban Missile Crisis). Perhaps that's what makes the Xavier and Magneto bits stand out like so much fresh air. Both McAvoy and Fassbender are some of the few characters who actually feel like they are inhabiting the 60s setting. Fassbender carries himself so handily as a 60s super-spy that should Daniel Craig decide he no longer wanted to be James Bond, he could easily step into the role. Not only is he very charismatic, but he manages to articulate the film's central philosophical difference between the two protagonists so well, that one genuinely sympathizes with his plight (despite our knowledge of Magneto's future plots). In trying decide where the film's sympathies lie, the contrast between Xavier's privileged upbringing and Lehnsherr's history of trauma makes for an interesting interpretive exercise. The result is a film that contains several genuinely moving moments.

The end result is that First Class is mixed bag. It's a decent summer action flick, but I can't help but see the stuff that really works cast the more rote aspects of the film into sharp relief. See it for Fassbender and McAvoy, and hopefully, if it makes enough money, future instalments will have more time and care (and budget) to polish the rest of it and achieve the quality summer action film that remains just out of reach.

6 out of 10

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, and Bryan Singer; starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, and Rose Byrne.