It’s inevitable, so I’ll lead off with it: X-Men: First Class is a first-class film.
Also, it doesn’t happen much, but Roger Ebert is wrong. Oh so very wrong.
Released June 3, 2011
Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz (the same pair who were lead screenplay writers on Thor) and a few others, with a story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Vaughn.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (excellent), Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones and Rose Byrne, plus a lot of others.
* * * *
I will give X-Men: First Class a compliment I rarely dole out: I would see it again tomorrow. I would even spend money on it again tomorrow.
There is very little that I didn’t like about this film. I’ll get that stuff out of the way now: a few too many mutants who didn’t get enough screen time and January Jones. I realize that there are people who think she’s great, but I think those folks and I are different species. She’s boring.
Now, I loved the comics. I have a sizable collection of comic books that range from 25-65 years old. I’m a comic book fan. I also know perfectly well where most of the superheroes in the DC and Marvel pantheons are supposed to come from; I’ve read the comics. So I know the original ‘origin’ of these characters and their world.
But I’m not a purist and I don’t care about a film sticking to its source material accurately at the expense of the film itself. I say do an excellent piece of art even if you have to depart from your source material somewhat. Which is why I didn’t think much of the first Harry Potter film.
The writers of X-Men: First Class show great audacity with what they’ve done here. Bryan Singer is quite welcome on the writing team; he seems to bring a consciousness of heart, motivation and humanity to films. This is why I liked Superman Returns.
X-Men: First Class starts with a scene that viewers of the entire franchise will find quite familiar: Erik Lehnsherr being torn from his parents at a Nazi camp and destroying some iron gates in his fury. But in this film, we get to see what happens immediately after, namely we see Schmidt, a Mengele-like fellow who scorns Nazis but wants to use them to get what he wants: an understanding of humanity’s next evolutional step. Early on, we don’t know why Shmidt is doing this, but later we find out, when he shows up as Shaw, that this fellow is a mutant as well.
Shaw is played with fervor and energy by Kevin Bacon, who should be playing lots of bad guys after this film. He’s a talented actor and it’s nice to see him fill out a role so well. A less talented actor would have just made Shaw a maniac, but Bacon infuses this antagonist with humanity and tempers the man so he’s less a wacko and more of a highly motivated narcissist. An evil, murdering narcissist, to be sure. Much like Spacey’s Lex Luthor.
After Lehnsherr’s experience in the camp, where he is convinced his power is only accessible through rage, we see him as an adult (played by Fassbender) essentially running his own game as a slick Nazi hunter going after Schmidt, but happy to take down other Nazis in the process. Many reviewers, after this film, are calling Fassbender the heir-apparent to the James Bond role when Daniel Craig tires of the franchise. Lehnsherr continues his search for Schmidt-now-Shaw and it is as he is trying to kill the man that he crosses paths with Charles Xavier, played wonderfully by James McAvoy.
The first act of the movie switches between Lehnsherr’s arc and Xavier’s arc, as it should, since this relationship is a huge driving factor of the entire X-Men universe. So at the same time we watch Lehnsherr doing his thing, we see a very young Charles Xavier meeting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, you are a gift) and having the two of them bonding over their ‘different-ness.’ She becomes his adopted sister, which is lovely and I adore their relationship dynamics.
Charles gets a doctorate in genetics, which might make you think he really is all about the gravitas, but he’s got a little Pete Venkman in him. He uses slick, scientific facts as pick up lines, is a bit of a ladies’ man and is very charming, and he is not paralyzed. He is, in fact, quite a fast runner.
While Lehnsherr seems to believe that there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that cannot coexist, a stance which Xavier’s thesis actually supports, Xavier himself seems to believe that humanity is the exception. They both believe that their mutation is the next evolutionary step, but Lehnsherr is a cynic and feels that humanity will never leave them alone. So he sees normal humans as inferior and he wants to be apart from them in his Brotherhood. Xavier wants to be a part of the world and work with other humans, while also providing a safe place for mutants. He sees life as sacred for everyone; Lehnsherr sees life as an earned right.
On that canvas is painted a film with great set pieces, a very groovily conveyed time period, excellent acting, and very timely and grand-scale conflicts that happen while the characters go through their own internal and interpersonal conflicts.
Raven/Mystique and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) have mutations that are clear to the human eye and they wish they could appear normal, yet keep their powers. Raven is a grown woman, but is played somewhat younger by Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone fame. She does a marvelous job showing the viewer the fears and needs that drive Mystique’s destiny. Hoult, who was the titular boy in About a Boy, lends emotional weight to McCoy’s desire to avoid confrontation and deny the beast within.
There are a few other characters, mostly with excellent powers. You have Banshee, a plain-looking young man who can emit incredibly high-pitched screams. Then there’s Havoc, who does a lovely job and whose power is marvelously destructive, as well as Darwin and Angel. These are nice additions, and each character plays an important role, as do Shaw’s henchmen, but we don’t quite get to know them well enough. When the young mutants interact with each other, there’s real chemistry– it’s delightful. But we didn’t get to see enough of that.
All in all, because the characters’ needs and desires drive the story and conflicts, rather than their powers driving the story, the movie is very successful.
Apparently the director, Matthew Vaughn, did that film, Kick Ass. I continue to have no desire to see that movie, but he is an audacious film-maker so I think he’s got a lot going for him. X-Men First Class clocks in at 130 minutes, but I could have done with more of it. It is lots of fun, very nicely designed and presented, wonderfully acted (except for January Jones… meh) and nicely paced.
Ebert didn’t like it. Ebert is wrong.
Pens (writing): 4.5
Cameras (acting): 5
Screens (the entire experience): 5