Jun 5, 2011

Movies: X-men: First Class

I am a HUGE X-men fan. For various reasons this has always been the comic book series that I have loved the most, even if at times writers turn it into a disgusting soap opera. There is just something that draws me back every time. So when it was announced that an X-men movie is in the making, I was beside myself with excitement. It was the year 2000, and I was a lot younger, but it was also more than that. The super hero movie was nowhere near the huge budgets and blockbuster status that it now has, and after a few horrible Batmans, it was considered bad taste to even call it cinema.

Enter Brian Singer and his original X-men. The approach he had chosen was unique. Instead of gaudy suits and flamboyant action scenes, Singer had gotten to the core of what makes that particular series good, and the movie was more a social drama than a superhero action. Of course, it didn't lack in the latter regard either, and the end result was mind blowing. The fact that it took a major crap-fest like Wolverine to actually ruin the franchise, speaks of its inherent quality.

When they announced X-men: First Class, I was nowhere nearly as excited as I had been 11 years ago. I've seen too many comic book movies now, not all of them bad, and the 60's setting seemed a bit too far from the roots of the series. But then I heard that it will be a true prequel to the original trilogy, and not a reboot - as is so fashionable these days - and thought there might be some potential there. Then the cast was announced. Then the trailers started appearing.

And I was sold.

X-men: First Class is different from the original trilogy. Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Kick-Ass) has created a campier, more comic-book feeling movie than Brian Singer's sombre realism, and even with all the implausibility and plot holes that entails, it actually works great. The 60's setting on the other hand fails, in my view, as there is very little actual 60's feel to it, but the Cuban missile crisis plot would not work without it, and in the few instances where it does have the feel, it is great, so I can't really criticize it.

Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just graduated from Oxford when he meets the young CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). She is after an elite group called The Hellfire Club and run by the mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), and she believes that Xavier could help her, even though at first she doesn't know that he is a mutant himself. With the CIA's help he finds another mutant - the concentration camp survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) who is after Shaw to avenge the murder of his mother - and together they form a team of young mutants in order to stop the Hellfire Club.

It's a typical Origin story, but unlike many movies of that sort, First Class doesn't waste most of its time origining. We already know who those people are, what they will become in the future. So Vaughn gives us an actual adventure which just happens to be their first one.

The two main characters are wonderful and the actors are perfect matches for the roles. McAvoy's Xavier is a lot more arrogant and cocky than Patrick Stewart's in the original trilogy, still having all his ideals intact and untested. He has supreme confidence in his powers, as well as his ability to help mutants and reach out to humans for peaceful coexistence. Fassbender's Erik is also not the Magneto that we know. Nowhere near as fanatic and without the hypocrisy and duplicity that mar Ian McKellen's character, he is a troubled and angry young man who is hunting for his mother's killer, not realizing what his anger is shaping him into.

Meanwhile, Kevin Bacon's Shaw is an evil beta version for Magneto's ideals (he even goes as far as to unwillingly provide him with his famous helmet). It is not a complex role, but Bacon is charming in his unapologetic evilness, while being smug and overconfident at the same time. Perfectly in tune with the unrealistic early comic book feel that First Class goes for.

The rest of the characters are the usual serving of heroes and rogues. Only one is memorable enough to warrant her own paragraph, and that is Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) - Charles' shapeshifting sort-of-sister who slowly comes to terms with the way she looks and the fact that she will never be accepted by anyone until she accepts herself. Her disappointment with Xavier and her subsequent infatuation with Erik are among the best storylines in First Class. Sadly, Lawrence's appearance - her face specifically - seems weirdly inappropriate to the character, but that might be just me.

Still, at times the movie isn't quite there. Perhaps we've reached the point where the superhero visuals just don't work anymore, or maybe the action just isn't good enough. It isn't really bad either, but it looks slightly uninspired, except for Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and his "evil Nightcrawler" fighting techniques, as well as some of Erik's brutalities. Most of it is fairly predictable too. The effects are gorgeous though, and a few scenes are just jaw-dropping (the submarine scene for example, and yes - there is actually more of it in the movie than in the trailer, if you could believe that!). It's just that we've seen most of it before.

Also, more than a few characters - like Riptide (Alex Gonzales), Havok (Lucas Till), Angel (Zoe Kravitz) or Darwin (Edi Gathegi) - just feel unnecessary, as if added only for the visuals (not surprisingly three of those are super attractive). Still, I am happy that the screenwriters kept their mutation in check, and didn't present us with too many characters to handle in a single movie. Apart from the ones listed above, everyone gets decent screen time and as much development as the scrip has allowed, thus saving First Class from the feeling of fanboy mutant-fest that tainted X-men 2 for example.

In the end, X-men: First Class might suffer from the modern comic book movie syndrome, but it is a good comic book movie. Lacking the ironic punch of the first Iron Man for example, it relies on the main duo's chemistry and their superb acting, and the gambit pays off. There are plot holes and there is also bad acting from some of the minor characters, and there is also the could-you-have-been-more-obvious horribleness of the "Mutant and proud!" line, but as a whole, I liked First Class quite a bit more than I've liked any comic book movie in years. It doesn't reach the effect of the original X-men and even though it's a lot better objectively, it can't replace The Last Stand in my heart, but it is way better than both X-men 2 and the unfortunate abortion that was Wolverine. So if there is even a little fanboy in you, or you just like quality summer popcorn movies, do yourself a favor, and go see it.

Plus, Wolverine's cameo is PRICELESS!!


P.S. There is no scene after the credits. Just fyi.

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