Monday, June 6, 2011

"X-Men: First Class"

X-Men: First Class - Directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Vaughn, story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon - Rated PG-13

Cuban Missile Crisis, Nazi hunting, Fassbender as Magneto? Rock on!

The summer of superheroes, sequels, and prequels marches on but this prequel stands out because it works as a standalone film. X-Men: First Class still plays fan service enough to please the devotees but newcomers to the series are likely to enjoy this prequel as well. The film is a mixture of history, humor, and action that stands leaps and bounds above the previous prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

While the last film in the series explained the origin of fan favorite Wolverine, this film leaves that character aside to explain the complicated friendship between Professor X/Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), all set to the background of the Cold War. The Cold War aspect works perfectly as an origin story to the X-Men universe as the original three films are basically about a cold war among mutants that eventually turns into a real war. These comic book characters have always been ripe for comparison to American history, from civil rights to Communist fear-mongering. First Class keeps that tradition alive by actively implanting the mutants in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

The film isn’t just a about history, though. It’s primarily a film about how Magneto and Xavier met, became friends, and eventually ended up on opposite sides of a war. Fassbender and McAvoy are the glue that holds the film together. They work great together and if anything, there are not enough scenes featuring the duo. To be honest, Fassbender stands out a bit more than McAvoy, and his early Nazi-hunting scenes were interesting enough to be a movie on their own.

But First Class also has to give the background on some other characters like Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Emma Frost (January Jones), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and many others. There may be a few too many characters, actually, but it’s not much of a problem for the film. The adversarial role goes to Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, a kind of precursor to Magneto in the later films, helmet and all. Bacon adds a bit of fun to the movie as the evil, Hugh Hefner-esque villain.

The inclusion of so many characters means that there is a lot of ground covered by the film and most of your questions about the original films will most likely be answered, though First Class will likely leave a few attentive viewers scratching their heads because some things mentioned in the previous four films are kind of ignored or flat out contradicted. It’s all pretty harmless stuff in the larger scheme of things but dorkier audience members might cry foul.

All comic book issues aside, First Class is successful in summer blockbuster terms as there are plenty of laughs and the action is compelling and easy to follow. Oh, and it wasn’t in 3D, which is very refreshing for a big summer movie. Some of the effects and costume choices might look a bit goofy to some, but when you factor in the 1960s setting, it all adds up and gives the film a distinctive style that sets it apart from other films in the series (something Wolverine failed to do.) It seems like director Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) was just what the series needed.

First Class isn’t without its faults, however. As stated earlier, the film would have been more interesting had the focus been squarely on Fassbender and McAvoy. For instance, there were some great moments in a training montage in the second half of the film; if there had been two or three more scenes like that that the film would have been improved. To make room, the side story between Beast and Mystique could’ve been excised, since that storyline had already been covered with Rogue and Ice Man in the third film. Also, not all of the acting is top notch, January Jones is once again a weak link (as she was in Unknown), even though her role is to basically just sit around and look pretty. These are petty problems in an otherwise awesome movie, though.

X-Men: First Class should be enjoyable for fans and newbies alike. It does what a prequel should for the fans: it makes re-watching the original film a richer experience. Also, the film features one of the most crowd-pleasing cameos I have ever witnessed and that short scene alone makes it worth watching for any fans of the series. Those not in the know will most likely enjoy this film that has all the action and humor you could ask for in a summer blockbuster, along with a compelling story of friendship and war. Don’t worry that it’s the fifth film in the series or that it’s a prequel; X-Men: First Class is its own film and it’s a pretty good one at that.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Here are some inconsistencies I noticed. Moira’s appearance: she shows up as Olivia Williams in the post-credit scene of X3 as a nurse, so how does it make sense that she's a CIA agent in her twenties in the 1960s?

Xavier seeing the helmet: if you watch the first film again, Xavier seems surprised that Magneto has a helmet that blocks his ability, yet he had to have noticed the helmet at the end of this film.

The ages of Xavier and Magneto: Xavier claims, in the first film, that they first met when X was 17. I know Xavier is a genius and all, but you can't tell me that he is supposed to be 17 in this film.

Emma Frost was in Wolverine and appeared to be younger even though that film takes place after this one.

The Wolverine cameo was definitely one of the highlights of the film and an excellent use of the sole f-bomb in the film, but it does cause problems. Both Magneto and Xavier seem unaware of Wolverine in the first film. I suppose it could be argued away because they were visiting many mutants and never really got a good look at Wolvie, but it seems like they should have a bit of memory about him.

Speaking of Wolverine, remember at the end of Origins, when that weird CG-young Patrick Stewart shows up, bald and standing? Xavier can't walk at the end of the this one and he still has his hair, so that's messed up now.

For the record, I am completely fine with First Class ignoring the timeline of Wolverine. The fact that that film is contradicted so much seems to say that Marvel has kind of discredited it. Not sure if it's even meant to be counted as part of the canon anymore. I'm okay with leaving it out. Especially since that film messed with some characters as well, like Sabretooth, who went from a cool, wise-cracking Liev Schreiber to a mute wrestler/actor Tyler Mane.

I am sure I missed some issues, but the point is this film stands on its own in many ways, including it's place in the canon.

Finally, I am serious. I want to see Michael Fassbender in Erik Lehnsherr: Nazi Hunter.

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