Review: X-Men: First Class

06/05/2011

It’s been a long three years for the superhero genre since The Dark Knight. The Watchmen trailers turned out to be better than the actual film. X-Men Origins: Wolverine became the new gold standard for big budget disappointments. Downey Jr.’s once-fresh Tony Stark went the familiar-but-dull way of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates sequels. Raimi left Spider-Man, Aronofsky left The Wolverine, Jon Favreau left Iron Man, people keep casting Ryan Reynolds, and Marvel put Joss Whedon in charge of The Avengers, so we know audiences have to find some way to lose interest entirely before that comes out next year. Not to mention that after fan distaste for Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, everything in the last five years has been some twist on an origin story or a very predictable hero’s journey, and when they can’t do one of those things they reboot the series and start over again. Hardly a week ago, I said in my review of Thor that I was perhaps growing out of superhero films, a sentiment that seems to be reflected by the masses in the declining box office receipts of what was once always a sure thing. It almost feels like, in order to survive, the superhero film desperately needs to… well, evolve.

Fortunately for everyone, a young new team was up to that challenge. Their mutant creation is a slick, humorous, idea-and-character-driven monster that puts to death once and for all those last strands of the campy, personality-driven 90’s heroes that still plague the last generation of superhero films. Helmed by Matthew Vaughn (whose Kick-Ass, while kind of a flop, was easily the best post-TDK superhero film to date) and bolstered by the return of Brian Singer (who takes a story credit) with the help of some of the industry’s best upcoming actors like James McAvoy (Atonement), Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds), and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) X-Men First Class is a title that should be taken literally, restoring not just the waning X-Men franchise but breathing enough fresh life into the superhero to keep me (and hopefully cinematic thrill seekers everywhere) from losing interest just yet. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to watch people fly around in colorful suits and use illogical powers to make things explode. Fun if done correctly, that is.

The sheer number of ways that X-Men First Class succeeds where so many of its predecessors have failed is staggering. The challenges facing it are equally so. Here is a film that attempts to tell a story we already know about characters whose destinations are already set in stone. It’s this exact scenario that ruined Star Wars, and most series since have gone to great lengths to avoid it, be it Batman which just did away with the previous films altogether, Star Trek which dabbled in time travel to erase its predecessors, or Wolverine which relied upon convenient amnesia. But in keeping with Vaughn’s approach to everything, First Class just faces this challenge head on with the confidence that with enough talent and care, everything will turn out alright. And sure enough, this was the exact approach that the franchise needed.

When Brian Singer opened his original X-Men in a 1940’s German concentration camp, it was a statement. The previous consensus about comic book films was that there was a vast degree of separation from reality required to make it all work. The DC heroes Superman and Batman were first to find cinematic interpretations because they operated out of fictional cities in a fictional world, utilizing camp and exaggerated fantasy to aid the suspension of disbelief. Flawed though it was, X-Men brought a confidence that these stories could carry thematic significance – maybe even importance – which revitalized the genre and effectively jump-started the superhero craze we have right now. Now, some films like Thor require this separation because of the ridiculousness of their premise and the lack of genuine subtext inherent in their stories; but self-reference and intentional camp are easy crutches that too many big budget movies of late (including X-Men: The Last Stand) have leaned heavily on. X-Men First Class opens with that exact same concentration camp scene, as though refocusing the series once again. It explores the same themes and ideas of the original X-Men, but does so with a focus and confidence not seen in recent summer entertainment without Christopher Nolan’s name attached.  It’s almost as though Singer has kept this world close to his heart since he left in 2003, and knew exactly how to create the definitive statement with those questions he only could dabble with back then.

Whatever potential appeared in the original X-Men films, they never felt like the final statement on the matter (including the much-revered X-Men United). Sure, they hinted and even elaborated on themes of prejudice, oppression, hatred, violence and the like, but at their core was the predictable, pre-determined battle of good vs. evil. One of the most amazing things about X-Men First Class (especially considering we essentially know where all the characters end up) is that prior to the end of the film, I had no idea what was going to happen next. This contrasted with Thor or Iron Man 2 where the ending is so pre-determined that the screenwriters don’t even try to hide what will happen next, but rather just focus on entertaining us with other story elements. First Class revolves around two separate ideologies on the discovery of mutants, one being Eric’s, that human nature will drive mankind to exterminate the mutants unless the mutants strike first, and the second being Charles’, which is essentially the exact same thing, except that mutants can somehow keep people from killing them by pursuing peace at all costs. This debate should be familiar to anyone who has followed the X-Men series at all, but what is surprising about First Class is how even-handedly it argues both sides, and tosses in others stemming from Hank Williams’ search for a cure to Raven’s desire to be herself in a world that would clearly never accept her for what she is. Furthermore, the film uses the concentration camps and the cold war as examples of human nature that make Eric’s side far more convincing, making these mutants’ stories mirror the checkered past of our own species and playing all of the characters’ conflicts against each other to produce drama.

Drama; that’s an odd term. We hear a lot these days about the entertainment value of action, comedy, horror, and fast moving colorful things, but drama? That classic battle of personalities and ideas has been kind of out of vogue in the populist sector, the assumption I suppose being that big budget thrills need not be weighed down by all that talk and stuff. Unfortunately, what has resulted from that is a decrease in substance and an increase in self-aware extremism, the exact same flaws that killed the Batman franchise in the 90’s. I’ve even noticed more critics have begun to give free passes to movies that at least knew they didn’t have anything going on upstairs. Unfortunately, frequent narrative leaps of logic and simplicity of character and ideology start to form more of a barrier from engagement than a pillow easing the escape. Tell me the last time that you genuinely cared about the characters in a big budget summer romp. Like truly, genuinely cared, in that guilty way where you awkwardly imagine yourself hanging out with them after the movie is over? It’s a rare thing, even rarer when we’re talking about superhero films. And yet, what lens can we look through into the big thrills when we aren’t attached to the characters? I’d argue there is none. It’s all empty spectacle. This is where X-Men First Class, in spite of whatever flaws it might have, becomes a legitimate triumph. It’s a globe-trotting actioner that never feels like it’s trying to be a globe-trotting actioner. It seems like the characters are actually driving the action forward, so when something exciting does take place, the audience is fully invested. This is an incredibly fun movie with at least four major action set pieces, directed with a sense of danger, immediacy, and exhilaration by Vaughn. But it’s all anchored in something that feels real, and that makes it even more exciting.

On that same note, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and the rest of the cast are all experienced enough to bring respectability to the proceedings but still young and unknown enough to take it all seriously and not realize when to mail it in. McAvoy imbues a charm in Xavier that mirrors Patrick Stewart’s, but with an additional youth and naivety that we watch slowly fade as the film progresses. Fassbender, on the other hand, is every bit as rough and intense as he was in Inglourious Basterds, making Eric’s presence ten times more BA than Hugh Jackman ever was with Wolverine. Too many actors in the original X-Men movies were too aware of the larger-than-life nature of their characters, or worse, were just playing themselves. That goofy, personality-driven superhero gene, of which strands have always still remained, needs to be exterminated once and for all if the genre is going to stay alive any longer. When it was released, The Dark Knight felt like some distant, unreachable ideal where ideas and craft coalesced in a big budget setting to make something legitimately substantial. At the time, I thought that was as good as these movies were going to get before they died out. X-Men First Class is a smaller, but nonetheless equally important step that shows that more people than just Christopher Nolan know how to tell a good story and are interested in doing it with superpeople in tights.

Sure, not everything works. Like all prequel films, the movie begins wearing down under the weight of all the storylines it needs to tie together before the end. Eric and Charles’ relationship, upon which most of the film hinges, doesn’t have enough time to develop to make their final confrontation as effective as it probably could be. Yes, there are also a few too many characters and the scenes get crowded pretty quickly, but that’s kind of unavoidable in these superhero team films. Actually, you’d be amazed how far just a few moments with each character can go when the screenplay makes the most of each of them. Every interaction between Hank and Raven carries with it a substantial amount of subtext, both relational (they are attracted to each other by their insecurity with their deformities) and ideological (Hank hopes to solve his problem by finding a cure for his mutation, while Raven really wants to be found beautiful for what she is). By the end of the film, only one or two people feel truly extraneous, and every one of the central characters feels like a complete individual who has undergone an interesting journey. No prior X-Men film has come even close to accomplishing that. On top of that, the film’s revisionist history gamble pays off in spades, driving the film forward whenever it needs it, providing it with an incredible thematic context, and never feeling like a cheap gimmick. Really, every decision in this movie adds to the final product, which is a constantly-entertaining, gloriously unexpected romp that I didn’t think I’d get again from this kind of material. I guess I was wrong about growing out of superheroes. Nobody is ever too old for a good story told well.

A (I know, right!)

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2 Responses to “Review: X-Men: First Class”

  1. mjdmook19 said

    Sorry, Ryan, but I have to disagree with you. I just watched First Class last night, so it’s fresh in my brain. But overall, I didn’t really like it. some of the characters were interesting and well done, but some of them were not. I must admit, Fassbender and McAvoy and Bacon all nailed their performances in the first half of the film, but I felt like they were just coasting in the second half. Furthermore, I did not love the writing, also particularly in the second half. I did feel like the story was contrived, that it was going inevitably and predictably toward one conclusion, and that the historical context was a little overdone. But more grievous in my opinion was the lack of character development. I never really got a clear sense of what Raven or Hank or even Xavier REALLY wanted, what drove them as characters toward their goals. Raven especially. I felt like her switch to ‘evil’ was too fast, too pat, too taken-for-granted. Her character more than any other felt untruthful to me.

    But I do love that first half. Oh my gosh, the scene where Magneto is in the tavern in Argentina. I thought I was watching Inglourious Basterds. And I am a really big fan of McAvoy. I thought the two leads of the film did a great job anchoring the performances. But I think the script could have done more to escalate the two men’s differing ideologies. I didn’t get a clear grasp of what was at stake and why it was important and where each of the two men was coming from. I feel like this should have been the most important part of the film, and maybe is was, but it needed to have more centrality and significance and depth.

    Overall, I liked it. But I didn’t love it. I thought it was good. But not great. In fact, it’s probably my second favorite of the X-Men films, maybe even my favorite. But ultimately, at the end of the day, it was still just a summer blockbuster that expected me to turn off my brain and enjoy all the explosions, and stuff! But I would definitely like to watch it again.

    • Mike,

      I understand the complaint about it being a traditional summer blockbuster, and I agree for the most part. It does has it’s flaws, particularly in the character department, but I also think that’s its greatest strengths.

      Where I’ll disagree with you the most is Raven’s development. She was actually what sold the movie for me. Aside from the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is just an amazing actress and I could watch her read the phone book for two hours, Raven’s transformation sold me precisely because it wasn’t about switching from “good” to “evil.” She didn’t want anything that we all don’t want, or that it isn’t healthy to want. Xavier never did truly appreciate her. That’s why he told her to go at the end. He knew he was wrong about her. The path would be more difficult than he thought it would be. Lying there, shot to pieces on an island, the two major world powers having just opened fire upon them like he promised they wouldn’t if the mutants fought to stop the war, and human nature having revealed it’s dark hand, he couldn’t very well say he’d kept any of his promises to keep her safe or protected. When he reads her mind on the island, he sees why she’s been angry at him the whole time, that he’s really more human than she is and might be a bit prejudiced himself, and he can’t help but agree. It’s not overstated, but in a subtle way it’s very powerful.

      SPOILER ALERT

      Just like the moment when Magneto kills Shaw. As the coin goes through Shaw’s head, this very evil, repugnant Nazi, his mind is linked with Xavier’s. And we see his pain in Xavier’s face, and we understand why Xavier is pursuing peace at all cost. Because he has the blessing and curse of empathy with everyone. He feels their pain. That “peace at all cost” mentality almost costs him everything, but nonetheless he knows no other way to live because he is forever to have his mind linked with the minds of others.

      Similarly, I liked how the movie developed the theme that the greatest evils occur when you assume you’re in the right. Xavier says, “It’s on us to be the better men,” and Eric responds, “We already are.” The Americans in the movie always assume they are always right, as do the Russians. The movie uses the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis to give this theme real world significance. Xavier’s insistence that only the pursuit of peace makes you the better men, regardless of rationality, is what drives away those around him and draws his followers toward him.

      So yeah. The movie’s not brilliant, but I think it uses its characters, themes, and ideas to keep the film from becoming mindless (hence entertaining people who like to think while watching a film) and also to drive the thrills and keep the film skipping. I’ll never fault a movie that does that well.

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