“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)

30 Responses to “X-Men: First Class (2011)”

  1. “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.”

    Superlative review, Craig! I believe even Matthew Vaughn — who hasn’t directed a movie I’ve liked yet — even said the genre had just about run its course. I had thought this one might be more than the sum of its parts (a fourth sequel) but after your piece, I’ll save my duckets.

  2. I’d hoped it was going to be fresh too, and I let the marketing convince me it might be.

    Alas, no.

  3. Frankly, I thought this was the first “X-Men” movie that actually delivered on the promise of the source material. Singer’s two were good, but a little too shy and anxious about the larger-than-life scale and scope they were dealing with. The realism was nice, but sort of frustrating at the way it hedged any real sense of ambition in the set-pieces– “X2” was especially anticlimactic, for my tastes. Ratner’s installment was actually a little better, for its willingness to embrace the spectacle of the series, but all of the best things about that movie were probably dreamed up back when Matthew Vaughn was in charge of it. No wonder, then, that he was the one to finally make an “X-Men” movie that wasn’t afraid to be an “X-Men” movie. Perhaps we’ll see some Sentinels yet, with him.

    “Spider-Man 2” was okay, but the movies it’s sandwiched between are iredeemably horrible to me, both as a Spider-Man fan and as a New Yorker. TDK is okay, but after a while it just looks like something you see reruns of on TNT all the time.

  4. Ok, I’ll give you that Singer’s are a bit overrated, but Ratner’s was just fucking wretched. Seriously. Riding on the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz for like an hour was one of the stupidest ideas in the history of superhero cinema outside of everything in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

    Spectacle is fine, but that was just stupid.

    And I rewatched the first X-Men and I actually liked it better than the first time around.

    Spider-Man 2 is gold. It improves on the flaws of the first one while delivering in every other way.

    Maybe X-Men: First Class plays better to people who actually give a shit about the comic? I don’t know. I’ll wait to hear what my other comic fan friends say about it. For me it was a slog.

    Not a terrible movie by any standard, but not fresh enough to cure me of my superhero ennui.

  5. Craig, the thing that amazes me is just how much the mainstream audiences are responding to “First Class”. I’ve seen it twice now (my dad wanted to check it out, after hearing it all takes place in the Kennedy administration and has the girl from Winter’s Bone), and the theaters were packed both times, with everyone responding to all the moments I’d have imagined would only play well to people who already know the comics well. It helps that a lot of these people have grown up with “X-Men” in some shape or form (the movies, the various cartoons), but I really was surprised.

    Frankly, I think X3 would’ve benefitted from MORE of the spectacle you have a problem with. I believe that Ratner’s main contribution to the film was to remove most of the big epic set-pieces and focus solely on San Francisco. Originally that would’ve been the midpoint of the film, with some sort of a climax in Washington, DC. As such, the story was reshuffled around, and a lot of flatly generic stuff was injected. Too bad, but I still think we can see that series continue in some fashion.

    “Spider-Man 2” has a good villain, but beyond that, I have to admit I really don’t like the movies at all. Everyone except for the bad guys and the aunt and uncle are horribly, HORRIBLY miscast. Sam Raimi’s action sequences are okay, but a little too jokey, and I gotta admit that I roll my eyes whenever I see the goddamn El-Train sequence (Spider-Man is a New York superhero, not Chicago).

  6. I found this as a borefest. We’ve seen it all before, and I only went along for the ride because my kids were pushing it.

    To have fond feelings for a film like this and to mostly reject something like THE TREE OF LIFE, well I won’t even go there. To each his own.

    Of course I am NOT referring to you Craig. You had enough issues with the film to suit my appreciation. Nice to see McAvoy in the mix though. Interestingly enough though, as useless as this film is, it is marginally better than Jean Luc Godard’s FILM SOCIALISM, also seen over this weekend. I’ll elaborate soon.

  7. Sam, one thing I will say– I’d much rather see “Film Socialisme” again in the theater. Hell, if it was playing nearby, I’d see it every day and twice on Sundays. And I’ve already seen it twice!

  8. Bob: I think I would rather take an ice pick and put out my eyes permanently than ever subject myself to something like FILM SOCIALISM again. This is the supreme example of arrogance in the cinema.

    I like my eyes more than that of course, but I think you get my point.

    I’ll make a deal. You go watch that Godard every day and I’ll match you by watching Malick’s film every day. A deal?

  9. Oh, man~ I was going to ask you how it compares to X2 xD, but you answered that in your first paragraph LOL And I did think the effects on the trailer were kinda cheap-looking… but since everyone’s been thrilled about this one, I had begun to set my hopes up.

    I guess not.

  10. Amy, don’t let Craig dash you here. It’s as solid a crowd-pleaser as I’ve ever seen from a superhero film, which is saying something for how many chances it takes (the 60’s, the background characters being put in center, the prequelism). I’d call it the best of the X-series so far.

  11. Amy, this one is better than the Ratner disaster that was X-men 3 and its more consistent and certainly less hokey than the first X-men, but its still rather simplistic summer entertainment that tries really hard to ape the superior X-men 2. It never even comes close.

    The script is full of contrived moments where a telepath’s powers only work when the narrative requires them to, and that logical weakness applies to the entire cast. Worse though, the characters themselves are given short-shrift by a script that is more concerned with its plot than their development. I blame the weak writing of Mystique more than I do Lawrence’s performance. It’s just a really poor script.

    I think I liked it a bit better than you did, Craig, but I’d admit that everything you fault here is definitely a flaw. This is better than the typical Hollywood superhero outing, but certainly not anything worth getting excited about.

  12. Bob, I don’t have a problem with spectacle, just stupid, badly CGI’d spectacle and that’s X3 in a nutshell.

    Yes Amy, I wouldn’t necessarily skip this one just because I was bored by it. You have to factor in my general ennui for the genre. It’s fine really, I’m just tired of all these movies being fine. I want something special.

    Joel, yeah, I’m not necessarily laying things at Jennifer Lawrence’s door, but it’s frustrating to see so little asked of her.

    Also, after rewatching and enjoying #1 I really miss Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewat. McAvoy and Fassbender are good to excellent, but man, the older dudes own them just with their expressions.

    Also I miss the injections of humor that 1 had. They felt natural and they all worked while the movie still managed to take itself seriously. It was a really nice blend.

    lol Sam, it’s a sad state of affairs when Godard is reduced to being marginally worse than a wholly average bit of summer time filler.

    Like I said above, the only part that had any juice for me was the amusing but fairly pointless cameo which I won’t name here.

  13. The first two are definitely funny and this one really isn’t, which is another mark against it. You already alluded to the funniest moment in the film, which also happens (not surprisingly) to directly reference the originals.

    Disliking X-men 3 has nothing to do with disliking spectacle. X-men 3 dismisses its single best chance for fun, full-on fanboy spectacle in its opening scene, substituting a couple of lights on a smoke-shrouded crane rig for actual Sentinels. The rest of the film is downhill from there, especially since Fox forced the screenwriters to write out most of the major characters because they couldn’t be bothered to hold the production until all the key actors were available. It certainly doesn’t help that Ratner is inept at character development or drama, but he was dealt a bad hand to begin with.

  14. Joel, I’ll agree with you on this– we still need to see some fucking Sentinels already, and that bait-and-switch from the Danger Room was such a terrible tease.

    Craig– I honestly don’t like the lame humor in X1, the jokes that were shoehorned into Hayter’s mostly good script by Joss Whedon at the studio’s behest (I think they also got him to trim it as well– that first film was really too damn short). And as for CGI spectacle– I frankly thought the Golden Gate sequence was rather good. I’ll also agree with Joel that a major problem with X3 was how major characters were written out just to serve actor egos. Seriously, Halle Berry was always an awful choice for Storm to begin with, and to see her beefed up at the expense of James Marsdon’s perfectly good Cyclops was a big disappointment, especially because this was an “X-Men” movie that finally had fights big enough for him to actually shoot some goddamn stuff with those laser-eyes of his.

    Had Vaughn directed the film instead of simply shepherding the writing and doing the storyboards before walking off, it would’ve been great. Hell, he was the one who cast Fraiser Crane as Beast, so he’s okay in my book.

    Anyway, as for the performances in this new one– Lawrence was okay as Mystique, and at least got to do more acting than Rebecca Romijn (or however you spell her name) did in the first three. She was a regular teenage girl who happened to be blue– good enough for me. McAvoy was fun, and Fassbender was great as long as he was speaking in language other than English. For most of the film, he has a problematic monotone for me, and an awfully inexpressive one at that. Is it to avoid that Irish accent that pops up when he starts making Magneto monologues (and reminds you just how much he isn’t Ian McKellan)? Who knows, but there’s a relish in his “Carlos” scenes hunting Nazis around the world that is just dead in the water, for the rest of the film. He was a weak spot for me, but still, overall it’s a good flick.

  15. Speaking of lack of humor, that “joke” where Emma Frost goes to get ice for Shaw was incredibly stupid. Jokes in a movie like this have to actually make sense to be funny and this was just ridiculous.

    I may just have to watch X2 again this afternoon to see if it holds up.

    Joel did you ever see the Wolverine solo flick? It looked terrible so I skipped it, but after watching X-Men, I realized how much he adds to the group and how sorely missed he was in First Class.

  16. Emma Frost getting ice for Shaw > Wolverine giving Cyclops the finger with his claws and proving he isn’t Mystique by calling him a dick. But then, I’m a Cyclops fan, so I’m biased.

    I’m actually overjoyed that we managed to have a decent “X-Men” movie without having Wolverine crammed down our throats. Speaking as a fan of the franchise in comics, cartoons, games and whatnot from since I was a child, I’ve really gotten tired of ol’ adamantium claws. Frankly, I never was terribly interested in him to begin with, and it’s to Hugh Jackman’s credit that he was able to make him into an interesting character for those films. Still, that solo flick of his was mostly pointless, filling in the holes of his Weapon-X backstory with little aplomb. Maybe his eventual adventures in Japan from the Claremont/Frank Miller comics will be better, but really, we’ve had enough of Logan for the time being.

  17. Seriously, that Golden Gate thing made me laugh out loud in the theater. Awful. And amazingly silly.

    I hate Cyclops and Marsdon in 1 and 2 so all the humor Wolverine gets at his expense for me is GOLD.

    Funny that we’re only totally different pages with this movie. You didn’t like the stuff I did (Fassbender) and vice versa.

  18. I prefer the things that risk making you laugh out loud rather than the stuff that prompts you to yawn, especially in a comic-book movie. Singer’s movies leaned a bit too heavily on the realism end, and didn’t take full advantage of the range of powers that were at the disposal of their heroes. X2 especially could’ve escalated things from the original, but it frankly was rather stiff.

    Marsden wouldn’t have been my first choice for Cyclops, but he was okay. The problem is he was written as a mannequin, and never given anything to do. X3, ironically, would’ve given him some narrative meat if he wasn’t killed off so quickly.

    Fassbender– he’s okay, save for the accent and monotone issues, but another problem I had was how they insisted upon cramming the whole of his transition from anti-hero to villain within the space of one movie. It feels a little too rushed.

  19. Originally they were going to make a Magneto spin off movie apparently, but then just wrote that stuff into First Class.

  20. Yeah, I’m aware of that, and believe they made the right call. Magneto and Xavier’s backstories are connected, there’s no reason to have two different films for both of them. I just figured they would’ve been better off spreading Magneto’s “fall to the dark side” across several movies, probably a trilogy, instead of just one. Then again, maybe the property really isn’t strong enough to just assume there’ll be audiences enough to sit through another movie or two before Magneto becomes Magneto. This probably was the smarter move, so they can get their money’s worth of Fassbender as a villain.

  21. I saw the Wolverine solo film. It was miserable, mostly because it exposed a huge contempt for the audience, which was also a major problem with X-men 3. Basically, Fox shouldn’t be allowed to make comic book films if they’re just going to piss on the fans who create the base for the franchise. I don’t care about cannon or playing to the cheap seats much myself, but there’s really no excuse for making crappy films simply to have something to throw on-screen.

    I have to agree that Cyclops got short shrift in the films and that Marsden wouldn’t have been my first choice, but he was better than the writing intended him to be. But Cyclops was mostly a poorly developed character in the comics themselves. I stopped paying attention in the mid-80’s, but I always liked Cyclops and felt for him more than most. Marsden got screwed in the third film.

    And yeah, Wolverine is way, way over-emphasized in the films and in the comics overall. They cast that character well and he actually worked on screen in a way I didn’t think they could pull off, so I understand why they made him the focal point of the storytelling, but its supposed to be a team story, not Wolverine and the X-men. But he’s the most popular character in the entire X-men history. Complaining about too much Wolverine is the same as complaining that people spend too much time talking about Michael Jordan and not enough about the Chicago Bulls. He’s just too ridiculously popular to avoid it.

  22. I’m not complaining about Wolverine on film, necessarily– Jackman’s good in the role, used pretty economically in the films (overused in X3, of course, with the stupid love story that ought to be Cyclops’). Hell, I even enjoyed most of the solo film, for what it was worth, even though I could recognize straight away how half-assed it was in telling the Weapon X story (something I just thought of– for all my gripes about Wolverine, he’s definitely a better version of Jason Bourne than Jason Bourne was, with all his amnesiac “they made me a killing machine” nonsense). Still, I’m glad that the series has outgrown Logan, for now.

    As for Cyclops, he was always my favorite as a kid simply because I thought he had a cool power. Then, as I grew up, my appreciation for him deepened when I realized that actually, laser beams shooting out of your eyes would kinda make your life suck rather badly.

  23. My perceptions of all the movies might be a little different if I’d read the comics as a lad.

  24. I was kinda hyped about this one, so I was surprised I didn’t go on opening weekend. I’ll try to find the time to watch it this week — maybe my dad, he likes action flicks, can come xD

  25. Come back and let me know what you think when you see it Amy. As I said above, I sound a little more negative about it than I really feel.

  26. Craig, I’ll reiterate that in all likelihood the vast majority of the audiences I saw this with didn’t grow up reading the comics, either. They grew up with the films, yes, and some of them might’ve read the comics or watched the cartoons, but none of them are likely steeped in the lore, dyed-in-the-wool fans. And they all responded.

  27. I mentioned my lack of experience of the comic in reference to your reaction and Joel’s reaction.

    People ate up Hangover II with a spoon too and it was f’ing miserable. The bigger point here is that I’m tired of superhero movies and it takes a special one to get me excited. This isn’t it.

  28. Yeah, but “Hangover” jokes are pretty easy to get, aren’t they? I’m saying that, beyond the regular ups and downs of the action-sequences and humor throughout the film, people were really emotionally connecting at all the right moments. Particularly, Mystique turned into a surprising lynch-pin for the audience– that moment when Hank basically called her true-blue form “ugly” ellicited a lot of gasps and pity-moans. There was a lot about the film that was intimate and relatable, beyond the comic-book stuff, and I think that Jennifer Lawrence probably deserves a bit more credit than she’s being given here, for how she took what used to be a sexy villainess character and fleshed her out into a sympathetic, really ordinary girl who just happens to be a mutant. I wasn’t expecting anything like that, nor a mainstream audience getting it that much.

  29. Critics agree with you for the most part and it had a relatively high Cinemascore so the people who saw it apparently liked it. I think standards have just fallen through the floor and anything that isn’t egregiously awful gets a free pass, but that’s just me.

    I thought Anna Paquin already did the ordinary teen thing pretty well in the first movie. Lawrence looked great in a mini-dress and boots, but she was otherwise characterless. Megan Fox could’ve played that role. And the Mystique effects were pretty terrible as were most of the other effects. The first one was done on the super cheap, but it still looked way better.

    If you start telling me how great January Jones was, we’re going to have to duel. :)

  30. I think it’s more that anything that doesn’t take itself as dreadfully seriously as, say “The Dark Knight” feels refreshing by comparison, perhaps.

    Paquin was good as Rogue, but the nature of her “ability” meant that there was always something a little abstract about her dilemma. It was rooted less in how people reacted to her, and more in how she was able to live her life, which is a little too thin to get into while you’re watching all the big set-piece stuff revolving around her. Mystique, on the other hand, has a much nicer, more immediate dilemma– she can hide in plain sight as a normal human, or hopefully find people who accept her for what she is. It helps that she isn’t just used as a damn damsel in distress the way Paquin was.

    As for the effects– I seriously had no problems whatsoever with anything in this film. Frankly, some of it was rather impressive, especially the CGI. The stuff that was less so actually was the in-camera stuff like the bad make-up they used for Beast. That prompted the movie’s lone unintended laugh (though who knows, Vaughn might’ve known what he was doing with that prolonged intro).

    January Jones– nah, she wasn’t anything special as Emma Frost. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t get a British actress to play her, as that’s how she’s always been portrayed in cartoons, and the like. She was perfectly serviceable, especially when Kevin Bacon was there to ham it up as Shaw, but they’d be better off getting somebody else to vamp it up as the White Queen, next time around.

    She was cute eating that cracker, though. That made me smile.

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