James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Michael Fassbender, January Jones, Lucas Till, Oliver Platt, Rose Byrne, Zoe Kravitz
Ashley Miller, Bryan Singer, Jamie Moss, Jane Goldman, Josh Schwartz, Zack Stentz
20th Century Fox
Theatrical Feature; Children of the Atom
I hate writing about superhero films.
I don't hate superhero films. On the contrary, actually. I'm just not your usual superhero, sci-fi, techno geek who can recite to you with absolute conviction the history of each of the film's characters, their strengths, their weaknesses and how the director either screwed up or absolutely kicked it in terms of faithfulness to the source material.
As a young boy, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I was far more into Archie comics than I was any of the Marvel universe, with the ever so slight exception of a fondness for Super-Man.
So, any review offered of an X-men film is offered as a film devotee without much regard at all to the actual history of this story and these characters.
So, I guess, that's my disclaimer.
Now, my review.
X-Men: First Class is, somewhat surprisingly, a good film...not a great film...not a ground-breaking film...not on par with the better superhero films like Superman 2 or The Dark Knight. Quite simply, X-Men: First Class is a good film.
The selection of Matthew Vaughn, who directed last year's freakishly entertaining Kick-Ass, may very well have frightened true devotees of the Marvel world amidst fears of an inappropriately light and satirical X-men universe. While X-Men: First Class does run a bit loosey-goosey in terms of faithfulness to the source material, Vaughn's direction is remarkably restrained and instead captures an almost retro-style feeling that may not get all the facts right but remains tremendously faithful to the early world of X-Men.
The film kicks off in the 1960's early nuclear era, with mutants becoming more commonplace and escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. A CIA agent (Rose Byrne) recruits the telepathic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to see if these mutants can be reined in and somehow actually benefit the United States. Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is a Holocaust survivor with the ability to bend metal, and who is hunting down Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), who murdered his mother before his own eyes. The young mutants include the blue-skinned Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Havoc (Lucas Till) and others. Dr. Schmidt, with his right hand Emma Frost (January Jones) ultimately has grand designs on creating a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, a plot that leads to one of the film's more ingenious scenes involving a marvelous mix of fact and fantasy around the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While X-Men: First Class is nowhere near the quality and entertainment value of the second film, it's miles ahead of the last film, a film that coasted by on reputation alone and the fanboys who simply couldn't say "No" to it. There's no way that the film is going to please everyone, most especially those depending upon strict faithfulness to the X-men facts, but for sheer entertainment value X-Men: First Class is a solid, entertaining and escapist popcorn flick that should have no trouble attracting a wider audience with its great blend of action and actors who can actually act.
The film really is a showcase for two British actors who are still only modestly known here in the U.S., James McAvoy a bit more than Michael Fassbender. The fragile friendship between Charles and Erik is front and center here, and Vaughn couldn't have picked two better actors than McAvoy and Fassbender to pull it off effectively. Fassbender, in particular, is a revelation here in a role that might finally make the gifted actor, most recently known for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a household name.
James McAvoy managed to hold his own in Angelina Jolie's Wanted, so he's already proven that he can handle both hardcore action intertwined with an actual story. However, it's rather remarkable the depth and complexity he adds as Charles Xavier, an emotional resonance that gives the film itself multiple layers to work with and that seems to work well given the sheer numbers in the actual cast. Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, gets even more blue here as Raven/Mystique and mines a surprising degree of humanity within the mutant. January Jones, Kevin Bacon and the always dependable Oliver Platt are also top notch here.
X-Men: First Class is, surprisingly and freshingly, only made in 2-D . While it might seem like this type of film is tailor made for 3-D effects, Vaughn wisely emphasized the story and characters here and allowed for well done yet far from dominating special effects created by fx vet John Dykstra. Costumer Sammy Sheldon also works wonders, while Henry Jackman's original score possesses as many layers as does the film without ever missing a beat, an emotion or an opportunity to go over-the-top and kick ass.
As nearly always happens when the Brits get involved, X-Men: First Class is a smarter and more stylish superhero movie that possesses quite enough of the razzle dazzle to make American audiences happy, as well. While the film slows down a bit too much at times and runs a good 15-20 minutes too long, X-Men: First Class may very well signal the triumphant return of the X-men to the big screen.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic