'X-Men: First Class' is a much-needed injection of life

After two poor entries ('X-Men: The Last Stand' and Wolverine) this franchise got a much-needed injection of life from 'X-Men: First Class' and director Matthew Vaughn. That doesn't make 'X-Men: First Class' a perfect film.

By , Screen Rant

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    Plain-clothed X-Men look quite normal in Matthew Vaughn's 'X-Men: First Class.'
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X-Men: First Class has been a controversial film ever since it was first announced. Comic book purists said that the filmmakers were straying too far from the source material with their interpretation. Film purists said that the production was being rushed and the movie would suffer – while fans of summer blockbusters remained unaware (or unmoved) by all the missteps in the movie’s flawed marketing campaign.

Well, whether you’re a fan of the comics, the movies, or just summer blockbusters, X-Men: First Class has something to offer you. After two poor entries (X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine) this franchise is getting a much-needed injection of life from director Matthew Vaughn and all the talent surrounding him.

…But that doesn’t make the film perfect.

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The story is pretty simple at its core, but slightly convoluted in its execution: We start with the childhood years of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, the men who will become Professor X and Magneto, respectively. Charles is raised in a world of wealth and privilege; Erik, on the other hand, has a horrific childhood in the Nazi death camps (a scene that pays homage to Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie), where his control over magnetic forces attracts the eye of a Nazi scientist/evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who pushes Erik to develop his power by way of trauma and pain.

Flash-forward to 1963 (an homage to the year the first X-Men comic book was released) and Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) are two young men on very different paths. Charles is now a prominent academic, while Erik is a haunted man, touring the world on a quest for revenge against Nazi war criminals and the mysterious Shaw. Meanwhile, the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union is intensifying, threatening to annihilate humanity in a nuclear holocaust – which is exactly what Sebastian Shaw and his cabal of evil mutants want. When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) catches wind of Shaw’s plan, the CIA tasks Xavier to gather a team of mutants to battle Shaw and his henchmen, setting in motion a chain of events that will inevitably create the X-Men, as well as the lifelong rivalry between Charles and Erik.

Matthew Vaughn moves this multifaceted story at a brisk, controlled pace. With a runtime of more than two hours there’s a lot that happens, but thankfully the time passes quickly. Most of the attention is focused on developing the characters of Charles and Erik, their friendship and eventual falling out, and this is the glue that holds the film together. McAvoy and Fassbender are excellent in their respective roles and have awesome chemistry together; the most moving and interesting scenes in the film belong to them alone. Despite complaints from comic book purists about the liberties this film takes with the source material, it manages to present both Xavier and Magneto as fresh and rich characters who are both worth exploring.

This reinterpretation not only makes First Class interesting as a movie, but in my opinion (as a longtime fan of the comics) improves upon these characters’ backstories in ways the comics never have. Seeing Xavier as a naive man – who has not yet learned the tact and ethics that go along with mind reading – makes for some interesting themes and humorous moments. Seeing Erik as a sort of twisted super-powered James Bond is thrilling, and Fassbender brings an intensity that makes this another breakout role for the quickly rising star. The two leading men don’t try to mimic the performances of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen from Singer’s films – instead they make the roles their own.

However, while the Charles/Erik storyline is the main focus (and is worth the price of admission in and of itself), the title of this film would imply a story about a larger team coming together. This aspect of the film (the actual X-Men team) is not as developed or interesting, and some fans will have a major problem with that. We do meet a group of mutants in the film, but with the exception of the pivotal role of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the rest of the mutants (good and bad) are mostly just there to fill out the action scenes – or in the case of Emma Frost (January Jones), fill out some ridiculous outfits (which the film does manage to justify… sort of).

For her part, Lawrence is great as Mystique, adding subtlety and depth to a character that was mostly eye candy in previous films. As with Charles and Erik, Vaughn manages to explore Mystique’s character in a way that is more interesting than either the films or comics have really presented her – even though we know where her arc will inevitably lead. The other performance of note is by Kevin Bacon, who makes Sebastian Shaw a charmingly menacing supervillain, without crossing over into campy or hammy territory.

Some people will be disappointed that the actual X-Men team members are little more than stunt actors in this film, but the battle scenes with the mutants are impressive. As with Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn proves that he is a fantastic director when it comes to action sequences, and First Class arguably has the best high-flying superhero action this side of X2 or Spider-Man 2. Whereas Singer’s films tended to fetishize every moment of mutant power use, Vaughn implements the powers (and the special effects to create them) into the film so matter-of-factly that it makes suspension of disbelief almost effortless (though seeing a blue-furred Beast still doesn’t feel quite right).

The ’60s aesthetic and historical footage are also blended into the film well, at once honoring that era, while still feeling modern enough as not to seem like a period piece. There are some wonderful stylistic tricks Vaughn employs at different points (first-person POV, split-screen montages); however, now and again the film feels a little unbalanced or unpolished in its editing (likely due to the rushed production schedule), though average movie fans are not likely to notice these seams sticking out.

Like most origin or prequel films, the nature of the story inevitably results in a truncated ending. The climax of First Class must fit all the players into their predetermined places, and the speed with which these transitions occurred felt rushed, even though Vaughn does capture some powerful moments in the dissolving of Charles and Erik’s relationship. The rest of the characters (literally) stand aside and then take sides, which again shortchanges them in terms of development or interest.

Thankfully, the rich Xavier/Magneto dynamic, fantastic action, and a handful of fun Easter eggs are enough to keep comic fans, movie fans, and summer blockbuster enthusiasts all sufficiently entertained by the majority of what this film gets right. Matthew Vaughn and Co. have definitely given the X-Men franchise a bright new future, and hopefully in the next film the actual team dynamic will be the nexus, rather than a distant secondary focus.

If you want to see more of the film, check out the X-Men: First Class trailer below, and be sure to hop over to our X-Men: First Class Spoilers Discussion to talk about the film once you’ve seen it.

Kofi Outlaw blogs at Screen Rant.

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