“All of these superhero movies are starting to give me a migraine.”
Well, X-Men: First Class is better than X-Men Unplugged or whatever Brett Ratner’s Turd the Third was called and it’s better than this summer’s first superhero movie Thor, but it’s not anything very special either. If “adequate” and “not terrible” are your hallmarks for super summer entertainment, then by all means go forth and enjoy this mostly nice to look at and inoffensive though occasionally boring and chintzy looking little gewgaw. If you’re looking for something memorable along the lines of Spider-Man 2, X2 or The Dark Knight however, save your pennies.
Having reached a creative dead end with the series begun by Bryan Singer in 2003, 20th Century Fox wisely if a bit cynically chose to reboot the whole thing as though it were a wonky computer. Starting over from scratch with a younger-skewing (and cheaper) cast is a fine idea and setting it in the 1960s was an even better one, but there’s still an eerie sense of more-of-the-sameness. In fact, the new film practically recreates the scene of Erik (future Magneto) Lehnsherr’s Holocaust childhood shot for shot. We didn’t really need to see that again, did we? After that, the movie then takes an awfully long time to re-introduce the overstuffed menagerie of X-characters and to establish their relationships all over again. Throughout it all, there’s a nagging feeling that we’ve been down this road already – and we have. There’s just no getting around the fact that, despite its new/old trappings, there’s nothing new here.
That’s not to say it’s not an OK movie taken on its own. For one thing, most of the main characters and actors are solid. Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglorious Basterds) is enigmatic and dangerous as Magneto even though he’s not a bad guy yet. Handsome James McAvoy (Atonement, The Last Station) lacks Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean elan, but his inherent dryness fits Charles Xavier well. Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) is also very good as CIA Agent Moira McTaggert. She has no super powers, but the actress has more than enough charm and presence to allow the character to hold her own. Kevin Bacon meanwhile is probably the most fun as Sebastian Shaw. He comes the closest to scenery chewing villainy, but never quite crosses over and he’s highly enjoyable throughout.
Jennifer Lawrence on the other hand is more than a little disappointing and flat as young Mystique. She showed such promise dressed down in Winter’s Bone, but here she’s just an ordinary (if pretty) teen or 20-something. I hope this is not a sign of the kinds of roles and performances we can expect from her in the future. She’s better than someone like Megan Fox, but she’s never really asked to prove it. She fares much better, however, than January Jones (TV’s Mad Men) who is easily the worst part of the film as Emma Frost. The name and the character’s ability to take diamond form are fitting since Jones is cold and stiff throughout. She’s like a 5-year-old banging out the same key on a piano in everything she ever does and this time is no exception.
Outside of the main players, none of the other characters are especially interesting and there are way too many of them. I’m sure it’s fun for fans of the comic to name-check each one, but it’s kind of tedious and confusing to an outsider. The fist X-Men films flirted with this problem, but Singer had the sensitivity to render each character more finely and memorably. These ones are an indistinct blur and so are the people playing them.
It’s interesting to note that a throwaway character cameo linking this latest film to the ones that have come before is the most entertaining bit in the whole thing. There’s also a quick bit with Mystique. When she shape shifts into her adult form, she looks like Rebecca Romijn who played the character in the original movies. It’s as if Fox wants to junk the history of the series, but still somehow wants to keep old fans on board. If anything, these moments are just reminders of what the new film is lacking.
Singer’s films, for better or for worse, were imbued with themes revolving around the idea of the outsider in the same way the original comics were. This film pays the underlying ideas lip service – there’s a half-assed reference to “don’t ask don’t tell” and an equally tepid stab at the War on Terror – but big ideas are mostly avoided except when they’re necessary for plot developments. It’s probably a mistake for comic book movies to take themselves too seriously (Christopher Nolan flirts dangerously with this), but if you don’t, you’re left with a bunch of people running around in their underoos fighting each other and that gets old after a while.
The one note of inspiration the filmmakers had in this redo was setting X-Men: First Class in the early 1960s when the X-Men comic first appeared on newsstands. It’s a nice idea that promises a different flavor of excitement from what we’ve gotten before. Unfortunately, the interesting period milieu is never fully taken advantage of. Besides the Cuban Missile Crisis background, young Charles Xavier using the word “groovy” without irony, and pretty Jennifer Lawrence cavorting in boots and a mini dress (not that there’s anything wrong with that), this movie could’ve taken place anytime or anywhere. The differences are entirely cosmetic.
A quick word about some of the technical trappings. The special effects look cheap and the original music by Henry Jackman is bland and instantly forgettable.
Flaws aside, X-Men: First Class is admittedly fairly entertaining once it gets past the slow start. The pyrotechnic finale is fun even if it loses points for squandering Michael Ironside. In context, however, there’s the inescapable sense that the movie itself is just a place holder for the inevitable sequels to come. It ends with Xavier’s X-Men on one side and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants on the other, two groups of equals set against each other by opposing ideas about what to do with their powers and their otherness. That’s great, but we’ve done this dance already.
Despite its sexy period trappings, the film winds up feeling like another episode of an ongoing TV-show or another issue of the same tired comic. It’s that sense of “been-there-done-that” which is infecting all of these superhero movies and marring sequels in general. Though they were sequels themselves, Spider-Man 2, X2 and The Dark Knight each improved upon their forebears. More importantly, they had a sense of monument. This new crop meanwhile is hampered by a troubling disposability. If those earlier movies were comics you’d back with cardboard and seal reverently in poly bags for years of admiration, X-Men: First Class and its kind are ones you throw in a box to fade and molder in the garage.
X-Men: First Class. USA 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer. Cinematography by John Mathieson. Original music by Henry Jackman. Edited by Eddie Hamilton and Lee Smith. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Alex Gonzalez, Jason Flemyng, Zoe Kravitz, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones and Lucas Till. 2 hours 12 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 3 stars (out of 5)
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