After two lackluster movies, Marvel has tried to reboot the X-Men franchise with an origin movie. Does the latest X-Men movie recapture the magic of the first two movies or does it stretch the string of critical strikeouts to within one of a golden sombrero?
As I mentioned in my Thor Review I didn’t read many comics as a kid. My main childhood exposure to the X-Men Franchise came from the arcade game X-Men: Children of the Atom. So when I first learned that an X-Men movie was coming out in 2000 I didn’t know what to expect. I remember enjoying the first movie and the sequel three years later. I probably disliked the third film in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand, less than most people and for the most part really enjoyed X-Men Origins: Wolverine (except for some of the atrocious special effects), but overall I could tell that the franchise had become a bit stagnant. After learning that the series was receiving a reboot I was interested to see what a new director could bring to the table.
I think Director Bryan Singer was on to something with the first two movies, exploring the issues of prejudice and civil rights, but feel that X3 and Wolverine got away from theses themes and steered more into straight up action movie territory (Singer had nothing to do with X3 or Wolverine). There’s nothing wrong with straight up action movies, but with the X-Men you had a group that could appeal to large numbers of the American public who feel like outcasts, be they teenagers, minorities, homosexuals, etc. If we are all honest with ourselves, there are probably few among us who haven’t at one time or another felt like an outcast. So does X-Men: First Class make the last two movies look like poor quality outcasts? Or does it join the fraternity of action-centered X-Men movies?
If you ask me, X-Men: First Class is the best X-Men film of the bunch. The movie is one of the best films based on a comic book I’ve ever seen. I believe the film will appeal to a broad range of audiences, like The Dark Knight before it. Audiences will be drawn to the film not because it’s a wonderful comic book movie, but because it’s a great movie...period. So what are some of the things that make this reboot a success? It all starts with the story.
The movie’s story starts from the beginning, introducing the audience to Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Charles Xavier (Professor X) as young boys. The film follows Erik and Charles as they grow from young boys into young men, all the while chronicling the experiences that make each of them the characters audiences have come to know over the years in the X-Men comics and movies. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I’ll just say that the film follows each of the young men on their separate paths until they converge for the final half or so of the film.
So what stood out for me? The story. Without giving away spoilers I just want to say that this is the way you do a franchise reboot! I hate to harken back to Nolan’s Batman movies, but for my money, comic book movies don’t get better than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Batman Begins chronicled the journey that transformed Bruce Wayne into The Batman, not just the event that inspired him to fight crime (his parents' deaths). For me individuals are formed not by any singular event, but series of events and people who influence our lives, for better or worse, transforming us into the people we are presently. Sure the first two X-Men movies were good, but I don’t remember us ever really seeing what made Erik and Charles the men they were. Granted, we saw Erik in the concentration camp, but surely he did something in his life before resurfacing as the powerful Magneto. First Class fills in those sort of dead spots in the franchise’s backstory and takes viewers on one entertaining ride in the process.
A strong story can only carry you so far; you need good actors to bring the story and characters to life. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy each had big shoes to fill replacing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the roles of Magneto and Professor X. I was amazed at how well the two youngsters filled in for Gandalf and Captain Picard. Fassbender does a wonderful job portraying a young man who has a strong distrust for authority and really makes Magneto into a character who you honestly fear. Watching a scene in a bar in Argentina I thought to myself, “Magneto is kind of a badass”! I never once really thought that while watching Magneto in the previous movies.
James McAvoy turns in a stunning performance as Professor X. If I had to classify Professor X’s leadership style, I’d say it’s charismatic. The guy can read and manipulate your thoughts, but McAvoy’s Xavier relies more on his charm and calm temperament to win over those he meets. McAvoy oozes charm and you can’t help but like Charles when McAvoy first pops onto the screen. The chemistry between Fassbender and McAvoy really helps the movie work as you have no trouble believing that these two individuals from extremely different walks of life could form a wonderful, albeit complicated, friendship.
The film’s pacing is very good. When it comes to origin stories it seems that movies can fall into two different traps. One is to spend way too little time developing characters and their backstories so we have no idea what is going on or care very little about what is happening to the characters. On the other end of the spectrum you have movies that spend way too much time telling backstories or introducing too many characters so that the film gets bogged down and the audience is just waiting for the movie to end because they’re exhausted. X-Men: First Class does a great job introducing us to the main characters and providing us with relevant information about their backgrounds. This is all done without giving us too much or too little information. The film also handles the introduction of supporting characters well.
Director Matthew Vaughn does a great job weaving supporting characters into the film. There are two scenes that help us learn about various mutants and they’re both entertaining. One involves Charles Xavier’s inaugural use of Cerebro (the device he uses to track mutants). The other involves the X-Men getting to know each other while showcasing their abilities. Both of these scenes do a great job of cleverly introducing characters and giving us enough of their background so that we care about their ultimate fate.
Simply stated, X-Men: First Class is a wonderful film. I feel there are two individuals who deserve a lot of credit for the film's quality. The first is Director Matthew Vaughn. I’ve seen three of the four films he’s directed and can say this guy is the real deal. He directed the fun Kick-Ass last year and the wildly entertaining gangster film, Layer Cake in 2004. With X-Men: First Class Vaughn’s name should join the ranks of the best directors working today. He knows how to develop characters and how to get great performances out of his actors. The second individual who deserves recognition is Bryan Singer. The director of the first two X-Men movies returns to the franchise helping to create the story for the film. His influence is obvious. The movie returns to the themes that helped make the first two movies a critical success. Singer’s influence has reintroduced the themes of prejudice and civil rights to the franchise, rescuing the franchise from the doldrums of mindless action.
As I mentioned earlier, X-Men First Class is just a great film to watch. Everything comes together to form one beautiful whole. The acting is superb. The performances by the leads, Fassbender & McAvoy, are some of the best I’ve seen in any movie this year. Following Fassbender and McAvoy’s lead, the entire ensemble brings their "A game" to the table. The performances by Fassbender and McAvoy would be worth the price of admission alone, but thankfully Matthew Vaughn, Bryan Singer and others have crafted a summer blockbuster that provides a compelling story to go along with the big thrills and high-octane action. X-Men: First Class is a highly successful reboot of a struggling franchise. If there are better movies coming out this summer moviegoers are in for a treat.
Verdict: Go see this movie as soon as you can. I loved this film! I like superhero movies, but know that they aren’t for everyone. X-Men: First Class is one of those rare superhero movies that should entertain comic book lovers and film buffs alike.
Action: Gone are the goofy effects found in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Sure we all know these abilities are fantastical, but making the effects seamless is essential in keeping viewers invested in the action on screen. The movie contains several well shot action scenes and at no point do the special effects distract from what’s happening. X-Men: First Class delivers action, but it never crosses the line into mindless action.
New Trilogy?: I hope that audiences go see this movie and give it the attention it deserves. It’d be a shame if the studio didn’t approve giving Matthew Vaughn the go ahead to begin work on a new trilogy. The good news is this movie is good enough to stand on its own, so if we are robbed of a second and/or third film we’ll be free of large loose ends.
Viewing Suggestions: I really like Matthew Vaughn as a director. I’m sure many of you have seen Kick-Ass...it was a good movie, but Layer Cake is one of the best gangster films I’ve ever seen. You owe it to yourself to check it out. The difference between X-Men: First Class and Layer Cake shows how talented Vaughn is. I know it’s an X-Men review and Marvel execs that read the blog will be angry I mentioned this (read: no one) but if you haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins & The Dark Knight you must see them (in that order). The Dark Knight raised the bar for superhero movies and X-Men: First Class comes close to reaching the new standard.