Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Class is in Session

When I first heard that the X-Men film franchise was going to be rebooted with an origins story of  Professor X and Magneto, I wasn't sure what to think. On the one hand, another X-Men film in the same vein of the first two series titles is overdue, as the superhero team is one of the more popular comic book organizations out there with hundreds of interesting characters and forty years worth of interesting stories to tell (there's a reason Marvel Comics has had dozens of spin-off titles to accompany their original X-Men series). On the other hand, well, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was merely okay, and don't even get me started with all the mistakes made with X-Men: The Last Stand. Thankfully X-Men First Class has a lot going for it. First you have the amazing cast that includes James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones and Rose Byrne. Next you have director Matthew Vaughn, who has done an amazing job with story-based action films Layer Cake and last year's Kick Ass. Finally, the film seemed to step away from the popular-but-overused characters of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm to allow other, newer characters to grow into the franchise. That would allow for the inevitable staleness of the previous trilogy's cast to refresh, and make these characters more viable down the line. Still, in a summer full of superhero film fare, I wasn't sure whether X-Men First Class would rise to the top, or sink deep beneath the waves of the likes of Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern.

Obligatory cast shot! And go!
As I stated before, the film focuses on Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender), and takes place during the height of Communism and the Cuban Missile Crisis. When CIA operative Moira McTaggert (Byrne) accidentally discovers the existence of mutants while conducting investigations into a secret society called the Hellfire Club and its leader, Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), she asks for help from Xavier, who is the foremost expert on genetic mutation. Of course, he is no mere observer of these events; Charles possesses a mutation himself, full-blown telepathy that he uses to read minds and communicate with others. With the CIA's help, they put together a full team of heroes to combat Shaw, including Raven Darkholme (Lawrence), a shape-shifter and Charles's childhood friend; Dr. Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), a malformed athletic mutant trying to discover a cure to his physical appearance; Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), who can create sonic bursts with his voice; Alex Summers (Lucas Till), who can absorb and discharge blasts of energy; and Lehnsherr, a former concentration camp victim with a lifelong grudge against Shaw and an affinity for moving metal with his mind. Together they hope to stop the Hellfire Club, whose goal is global domination and the rise of the mutant as the world's dominant species. From these beginnings comes the origin of comics' most unique superhero team.

Emma Frost about to come out of your screen, Ring style
X-Men First Class features one of the best stories I've seen from the superhero genre in quite some time. Almost epic in feel, the film doesn't rush a single detail, introducing the audience to Charles, Erik and Raven at young ages and the manifestation of their powers, before setting up the film's main story. Even then it doesn't rush things; even though Charles and Erik are the focus of the tale, they don't even meet for the story's first third. Nothing is sacrificed in the name of forcing the plot forward, and every pain is made to humanize each of these characters before going full steam ahead. Once everything is in place, First Class does go ahead quickly, but nothing feels lost to time spent. Even though the film runs well over two hours, it doesn't seem like anything close to that, as looking back I'm sure I could have sat through another hour comfortably.

Seems wrong to see Magneto wearing the classic X-Men colors... that doesn't last long.
One of the things I most enjoyed was getting used to all the different characters, many of whom haven't appeared in previous X-Films. Though comic fans will be quick to point out that the first actual X-team (according to their bible which is Marvel's database) was comprised of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Jean Grey, I'm okay with only Beast getting this first cut. Of the other notable additions, it was good to see lesser-known X-Men Banshee, Havok and Angel make their debuts on screen, even if the characters aren't nearly as fleshed out as are Professor X and Magneto. Sure, it's odd seeing Magneto and Mystique (two future X-Men villains) wearing the colors of the good guys, but the payoff by seeing their turns to the other side makes it all worth the while. I also loved the dichotomy between the mutants like Xavier who wanted to blend into society and could because they exhibited no physical abnormalities, and those - like Mystique and Beast - who knew they never could because they had to hide theirs. It made for great sources of conflict amongst the team, and a great commentary on human society as a whole.

Somehow, I don't think "I didn't do it" is gonna cut it.
The casting was also amazing, with only a few actors failing to live up to their perceived talents. McAvoy is once again amazing as Charles Xavier, as he proves himself a talent worth following. Somehow he's been overshadowed by his co-stars in many films, but any who don't appreciate the seriousness McAvoy brings to every performance simply can't recognize his immense charisma and acting chops. Of course, as I say this, he IS overshadowed by one of his co-stars by quite a degree. Michael Fassbender has amazed me this past year, with starring turns in Centurion and Jane Eyre catapulting him to stardom. Hell, even his performance in the otherwise-awful Jonah Hex was more than worth the price of a $1 rental. Fassbender far and beyond exceeds the talent potential for ANY action film, let alone one with superheroes, and so his role here as one of the X-Men's greatest enemies is a tour de force (see, they can't use that term just for serious films anymore) for the genre. Simply amazing. Bacon, meanwhile, feels half-baked. While he really seems to be trying in some parts, you can't help but feel that even HE knows he's just a placeholder for the next generation of X-Men villainy. Better is Shaw's number one, Emma Frost, played by Mad Men's January Jones. Though hardly a deep role, Frost has gotten more or less the shaft from previous films despite being one of the most important characters in the X-comics today. Still, Jones barely shows any range in her monotonous dialogue, though that only exhibits that she was perfectly cast for the role. Rose Byrne is good if underused as Moira McTaggert, a CIA operative who seems to be assisting the mutants while not actually seeming to be doing a whole heck of a lot. She's another actress with huge potential; it's a shame this film doesn't make use of it. Most of the secondary characters, played by Till, Jones, Hoult and Zoe Kravitz, do some interesting things but don't really get a chance to shine like McAvoy and Fassbender. At least they're more interesting than the "normals" like Oliver Platt as a nameless CIA agent. Most disappointing however is Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence, who rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for last year's Winter's Bone, doesn't seem fully in command of her character, Mystique. Compared to just about everyone else on the cast, her dialogue seems forced, with little to no conviction in her delivery. That's not a good sign, but hopefully this is a fluke and not a sign that her performance in next year's Hunger Games will be less than stellar.
"The Magneto!" is the new dance hitting Hollywood this year
Thankfully, that is the only major quibble I had with X-Men First Class. While I thought some of the special effects and makeup work was less than amazing (and really, no Stan Lee cameo?), the strong story and acting from most of the parties involved more than made up for any misses director Matthew Vaughn might have made. So far, it's the best superhero film I've seen this year, coming in at #3 for 2011. If you absolutely have to see one comic-book film this year, make it this one.

No comments: