X-MEN: FIRST CLASS Review

by     Posted 3 years, 178 days ago

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How much do we expect from superhero movies?  Do we ask that they be faithful?  Do we demand they be grittier so we can argue that they’re more mature and therefore better?  Or do we ask that they be fun, disposable entertainment?  That answer probably depends on the property, although the tone and plot of the most famous superhero comics have varied so widely over the years that there’s no single answer.  Keeping this in mind, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class forges its own path, not just in terms of the X-Men franchise, but in the superhero genre.  The film is stylish and exhilarating, but it’s also darker, more intense, and all the better for it.

First Class is a prequel that takes us back to the origins of not only the X-Men, but between its founders Charles Xavier aka “Professor X” (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” (Michael Fassbender).  We witness how both men are mutants by nature (Xavier a telepath and Lehnsherr a master of magnetism), but their attitudes towards man are based in their nurture.  Xavier grows up pampered in a mansion in Westchester, New York and develops an early friendship with a young Raven Darkholme aka “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence).  In Europe, Erik is placed in a Nazi concentration camp where he’s forced to develop his powers under the auspices of a cruel officer (Kevin Bacon).

We then flash forward and Charles is hitting on chicks (a jealous Raven at his side) by showing off his knowledge about mutations while Erik is hunting down his Nazi tormentors.  While a weaker script may have rushed the meeting between Charles and Erik, the film keeps them apart for the majority of the first act.  It’s a smart move because it gives us a chance to better know the individual characters and how deeply they believe their own views regarding mutant-human relations.  The two are eventually thrown together serendipitously as Charles is recruited to hunt down Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) who has his own band of mutants—telepath Emma Frost (January Jones), teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and tornado-conjurer Riptide (Álex González)—and at first glance is working as a communist spy.  In response, Charles and Erik team with CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and form their own team of mutants to combat Shaw and stop his ultimate plan: to engulf the world in a nuclear apocalypse.

Why does Shaw want to nuke the world?  Because he believes mutants will survive and they will then rule the planet with Shaw as their leader.  It’s a dumb plan but it’s convincing that Shaw would do it since he’s arrogant enough to believe that every mutant would agree with him and those who didn’t would cower in fear.  He also works as a villain because his power is almost unstoppable (he absorbs energy and then dishes it out) and because Bacon comes off as absolutely terrifying.  He’s played villains before, but this is him at his malevolent best.

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Shaw’s plan is almost the exactly the same as Magneto’s plan in the first X-Men (but with nuclear annihilation instead of genetic obliteration).  It’s a cool twist that Erik shares his mortal enemy’s beliefs and eventually takes his plan.  And First Class is full of these cool twists.  The film simply doesn’t say “Charles = Good, Erik = Evil”.  The audience is forced to reconsider the beliefs of both these men.  Charles’ faith doesn’t seem to be placed in humanity, but rather a celebration that mutants can be “the better men.”  It’s part of not only his naivety but his astounding arrogance.  It’s not a mistake that the last thing we see Charles do in the film is underhanded, patronizing, and ultimately ineffective.

By contrast, Fassbender consistently draws us into the badass charisma of Erik.  We shouldn’t side with his methods and his hatred towards humans, but he’s just so damn cool.  McAvoy does a terrific job as does the majority of the cast, but this movie truly belongs to Fassbender.  This is where he becomes an A-list star and viewers will be rushing out to see his previous films (start with Hunger!).  He plays every side of Magneto and plays it honestly.  We completely believe in his anger, his pain, his aloofness, and most importantly, his inability to forgive humans.  Because the plot owes so much to spy flicks and their 1960s style, it almost feels like Erik and Charles are two sides of James Bond.  Erik gets to be the brutal ass-kicker who uses a license to kill to his full advantage while Charles gets to be the suave “shaken-not-stirred” man.

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But there’s so much confidence in the direction that the film never feels like parody.  Vaughn takes the heart of a serious cold-war drama and expertly blends it with the larger than life tone of superhero stories.  X-Men: First Class is never embarrassed that it’s a superhero movie but it never feels the need to play into the genre’s tropes or audience expectations.  There are few films that can balance the brutality and darkness of the film’s violence with the joy, humor, and fun of the mutants discovering and learning to control their powers.  When we see the young mutants going from partying and declaring their code names to being under attack from Shaw and his killer mutants, the switch should be so abrupt as to knock us out of the movie, but Vaughn’s total conviction and complete control keep us drawn in.

That’s X-Men: First Class: a bunch of disparate elements that shouldn’t work and yet they do.  Weighty character drama between two friends who are doomed to become enemies played alongside flying teenagers and blue teenagers shouldn’t work, but it does.  Throwing together a slick espionage story with charming coming-of-age narratives shouldn’t work, but it does.  The reason it works is that everyone is playing everything at the top of their game.  There are a few weak links in the cast (Zoe Kravitz, Caleb Landry Jones), but almost all of the heroes get solid character arcs.  The cinematography is eye-popping, Henry Jackman’s score is neck-and-neck with John Ottman’s music for X2 as the best in the series, and Eddie Hamilton and Lee Smith editing work is superb.

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The movie isn’t without its problems.  The series continues its weakness of making the henchmen nothing more than fearsome powers attached to no-name characters (I’m not sure “Riptide” is even referred to as “Riptide” except in the credits).  The script, while doing its best to tap into Cold War fears, shirks commentary about racial integration in favor of yet again making a comment about gay discrimination.  That’s fine for films set in the modern day, but it feels heavy-handed and it highlights the story’s oversight of racial politics.  Speaking of race, my biggest problem with the film is when [spoiler, scroll over to read]: Darwin sacrifices himself to save the group.  For a movie so determined to take chances, it’s a tired cliché that’s unworthy of this film.

In the first half of the 2000s, when it became clear that Bryan Singer wasn’t going to direct the third X-Men movie, Vaughn came close to getting the director’s chair for The Last Stand.  Then it fell apart but he’s come back and delivered arguably the best film in the franchise.  X2 holds a special place in my heart, but for sheer ambition, the risks it’s willing to take, and its total confidence and style it possesses, X-Men: First Class is the best X-Men movie to date and one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Rating: A-

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  • Stinky

    Really good review, Goldberg.

    I’ve heard good things about First Class, but Last Stand was such a gargantuan pile of crap, I can’t get excited over this flick. Shame.

    • Phil

      That’s a bit of a daft statment to make..

      It’s like saying you didn’t like Batman and Robin so you’re not looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises.

  • Cropes

    I love the word “serendipitiously.”

    Anyhoo, I can’t to see this damn movie! I went from ‘Screw That’ at first, then trailers later, still the same. Until the character trailers came out, then I got sold. After those, in the theater, played a NEW trailer for this. Perfection. This film looks amazing and I expect nothing less of that.

  • micoy

    I’m so happy!

  • Jetpackman89

    My biggest issue with the film was some of the minor characters motives for there actions. Certain parts of the film felt so abrupt that I was really questioning: “WHY?”

    But other than that I really liked this movie it was bad ass and this review hits the nail on the head as far as Charles and Erik being two parts of one Bond.

  • Richard of Norway

    Very nice. I agree with every word! (Saw it last night.)

  • Migz13

    These good reviews about the film just makes me want to see it now:D

  • Wakelin Smith

    It was great to read this review. And i had seen tailor of X-Man movie.In addition, can you tell me where can i download this movie tailor.
    http://colonkleansereview.com

  • K Man

    He’s right on every count in this review. The movie is amazing and Fassbender (after this and Inglorious Bastards) is now one of my favorite actors. Best X-Men ever.

  • Yahzee Skellington

    I beg your pardon but the best X-Men score to date is still John Powell’s for the disappointing The Last Stand… that music deserved a better film

  • SmartFilm

    I found it to be a smash hit. Read my full review at Smart Film:
    http://smartfilm.blogspot.com/2011/06/out-in-theaters-x-men-first-class.html

  • drbigboom

    While I agree with everything stated in this review I do have one question.

    Why were Angel, Banshee, and Havok even put in this movie? They were introduced then basically forgotton. They didn’t add anything at all to the story, and to boot they were poorly cast. If you’re going to put a character in a movie that’s based on a well read book at least make them have some sembalance to the character. Banshee’s the oldest of the xmen, and a well respected member of Interpol when Xavier recruits him, and for crying out loud hes VERY Irish.

    All in all a very enjoyable movie, but prepare for fanboy freakouts all around the world.

  • J.R.

    Saw the movie last night, Amazing B+…the effects were very bad hope for the second one the producers go for more money on the effects…

  • Warpcrafter

    I cannot understand how people hate Last Stand so much. i thought it was wonderful, extremely ambitious, epic in scale and a perfect closing to the trilogy. Oh well, perhaps I’m just not jaded and self-important enough to warrant an opinion…

    • john

      i love last stand

  • rsnow

    I agree with Mr. Goldberg almost entirely. My only problem with the film was that it occasionally felt a bit too fast-paced as it tried to balance out the increased character development with the action scenes we expect from a comic-book movie. If you’d like to check out my full review, check it out on my blog:

    https://robertsnow.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/review-x-men-first-class/

  • rsnow

    I agree with Mr. Goldberg almost entirely. I felt the film did an excellent job with character development, and made me care about the origin story. The only element I didn’t like was how the pace of the film was almost too fast in places as they tried to cram in the character work and the expected action scenes. Check out my full review on my blog:

    https://robertsnow.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/review-x-men-first-class/

  • ajnapjr

    Just got back from watching it. Loved it. Easily the best X-Men film in my opinion. Sure it had its flaws, but it exceeded my expectations and left me very excited for more installments.

  • arun

    This is a great movie….watch it & then you’ll see how well Vaughn did making this roller coaster of a movie.
    Looking forward to the next one!

  • Wladi

    Great review…do urself a favor and go and watch it…indeed one of the best Xmen movie of de series along X2….

  • space cadet

    go watch this movie! the best x-men movie out of all

  • chris

    I intensionally didn’t read this review because i wanted to walk into the theater without preconceptions. The movie was really good and i agree with everything the review said except Caleb Landry Jones wasn’t a weak actor … Banshee was written to be a cocky sarcastic teen and that came across well on screen.

    The don’t ask don’t tell joke was hilarious. Matt thought it was heavy handed gay politics … the thousands of gay kids and the higher evolved people on the planet watching this movie will get a smile out of it … sorry it offended you.

  • Geoff

    Weird I’m obviously on a different wave length, I watched to the end of the credits in total disbelief hoping beyond hope it might improve. In my opinion they tried a Batman Begins and failed abysmally, if only I could have the time back – I could have been at home in bed asleep.

  • Pete

    No-one’s mentioned the costumes? They’re wearing proper X-Men costumes! Or the closest thing! Watching these guys doing real comic-book action in blue and yellow has made my year! The visual design of the movie is sensational in general – the shots are composed like crisp line-drawings, and the globe-hopping locations are vintage X-Men. Sublime.

  • Luis75

    Movie was total garbage

    • Eve

      Wow. You’ve convinced me, mate.

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