Thursday, 22 September 2011
X-Men: First Class
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones
By Alan Bacchus
Well, it’s been five X-Men films thus far over 10+ years, and by now it’s pretty clear there’s a formula that doesn’t quite fit the big screen. This latest entry in the saga suffers from the same problems as the first four. Despite some excellent sequences and genuine emotional attachment to some of the characters, the need to ‘go big’ and bombard us with overly produced set pieces of earth-encompassing grandeur drowns the picture in excess.
Kick Ass was an excellent comic book film. It was comedic, tragic and horrific in equal measure from a shit-hot director with keen visual and aural sensibilities. With X-Men: First Class we definitely get the sense it’s a Matthew Vaughn film. Here Vaughn has fun with some James Bond-style world domination plotting, dancing go-go girls in hot pants and bras, and fun ‘60s split-screen effects. Considering his two main characters are British, his style effectively matches them.
Cleverly, Vaughn and the producers go back to the original opening sequence of the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men (2000), as we see Magneto as a child being removed from his parents in a concentration camp and then demonstrating his powers to the Nazis. It’s a great sequence that expertly sets up the misdirected rage Magneto exhibits in the present. X-Men: First Class expands on this scene and shows exactly what happened to that kid and his relationship with the Nazis, specifically a particularly cruel (and hidden mutant) Sebastian Shaw played by Kevin Bacon.
In the ‘60s we get to see the elder child Magneto (aka Erik Lehnsher), now in his 20s, hunting down the Nazis who had his mother murdered in front of his eyes. Meanwhile, we also get to see the Cold War played out by Russian and American spies in the backdrop of real history (i.e., the placement of US missiles in Turkey and the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis). Charles Xavier gets recruited by the CIA to find fellow mutants whose powers just might help the cause. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up starting off as an ally of Xavier’s before meeting and falling in love with his future enemy, Magneto. A host of other mutants include Beast, Angel, Riptide, Havok and Banshee, who all learn their powers in the first congregation of the X-Men school – hence the title, First Class.
Michael Fassbender is the star here. His edgy, internalized trauma trumps the boyishness of James McAvoy’s Xavier. The film works best in his journey to personal vendetta. Everything else in the film is fodder. Vaughn and company expertly execute the true conflict that lies at the heart of the X-Men stories, which is the opposite philosophy of Xavier’s peaceful integration and Magneto’s survival by any means necessary. Vaughn cleverly shows how thin a line exists between good and evil, and how Magneto’s noble but warped mind would result in the massive destruction we would see later in the series. This is the stuff the best comic book films are made of.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from an overload of characters and overly produced set pieces in the second half, which dilutes the beautiful and powerful moments in the opening half. Jennifer Lawrence, while terrific in Winter’s Bone, feels miscast here. Her performance is lifeless, and sadly but honestly, her baby-ish face doesn’t look that great in the blue makeup. Sure it’s crass, but it’s important. Like all the other X-Men movies, there’s too wide a range in the mutants' abilities. Some characters get to raise tornadoes, while others simply have big feet. And really, a lot of these characters look plain silly.
Going back a few months, I remember being disappointed at the departure of Darren Aronofsky from his Wolverine picture. Despite multiple directors not being able to truly ‘crack’ this franchise as well as Iron Man and Batman, perhaps it's the fault of producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, as she is the common thread between all these pictures. I can’t help but think an effort to squeeze Aronofsky into this blockbuster formula resulted in him leaving the project. If so, then it’s for the best.
X-Men First Class is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment