A film review by Craig J. Koban June 14, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS jjj
½ 

2011, PG-13, 130 mins.

 

Xavier: James McAvoy / Erik/Magneto: Michael Fassbender / Moira: Rose Byrne / Raven/Mystique: Jennifer Lawrence / Emma Frost: January Jones / Hank/Beast: Nicholas Hoult

Directed by Matthew Vaughn / Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn.

The one aspect that made the original three X-MEN pictures so uniquely intriguing to me was its handling of its main villain.   

Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (played memorably by Sir Ian McKellan) was not a black and white antagonist that instantly invited our spite and hatred.  He was a rigidly atypical bad guy in the sense that he came across as a character whose evil motives were deeply rooted in childhood trauma.  A victim of the Holocaust as a child in Poland,  Lehnsherr was separated from his parents by the Nazis and, worse yet, was put through tortuous tests by their scientists because of his mutant abilities to manipulate all forms of metal.  As an adult he wanted “his kind” to live without being suppressed like he and his family were in WWII.  Yes, Magneto may have committed crimes against humanity in X-MEN I through III, but those films at least generated an odd level of understanding and sympathy for him, which is rare when it comes to comic book villains hell bent on world domination.  Lehnsherr had his own hateful emotional wounds that allowed him to rise far above the simplistic moniker of a moustache-twirling maniac. 

It’s been this series’ handling of its villain - and the intriguing thematic handling of its heroes as well - that has made X-MEN stand apart from other Marvel Comics spandex heroes.  We had a villain that wanted freedom for his mutant brothers via an aggressively violent approach to eradicate humanity.  The mutant heroes, on the other hand, led with a much more passive aggressive approach by Charles Xavier, wished to protect and save humanity from the likes of Magneto, even when it appeared that people wanted nothing to do with mutants of any kind on any level.  People look up to, say, Superman and Spider-man, but when it comes to The X-Men no one seems welcoming of them with open arms. 

The first X-MEN film did a good job of introducing us to this film universe and the second entry – the best of the trilogy – did an even better job of expanding upon it.  The third entry, yes, was the least of the series, but it still maintained my genuine interest in the underlining material, not to mention that it married its involving and compelling characters and story with cutting edge visual effects.    This brings me to X-MEN; FIRST CLASS, which does something completely different: Instead of being another redundant sequel, it opts for telling a prequel origin story of how Professor X and Magneto met, grew to be friends, had a falling out, and became mutual adversaries during the same time Xavier formed what would become his X-Men.  It’s a prequel akin to THE PHANTOM MENACE in terms of explaining the back stories of everyone involved, but I found FIRST CLASS more like a radical reboot - much like BATMAN BEGINS, CASINO ROYALE, or STAR TREK – that takes the familiar and retools it in refreshingly unexpected ways.  What this does is to give us an interesting new take on characters we think we understand, not to mention the fact that its new setting (1960’s Cold War America) gives the series a revitalizing aesthetic panache.   

After a sensationally realized prologue – set in a WWII Nazi Concentration Camp and performed all in subtitled German, a first perhaps for super hero films – X-MEN: FIRST CLASS jumps forward to JFK-era America in 1962 when we are introduced to a much younger version of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) a peace-minded, but flirtatious and woman-hungry young scholar that is on the cusp of getting his PhD and reaching the peak of his telepathic abilities.  Xavier (as played with dignity and calm spoken bravado by Patrick Stewart beforehand) is still a man of intellect, but he now has a cockiness and socially extroverted side never before hinted at.  He becomes a person of interest for CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (the lovely Rose Byrne) who wishes to recruit him to help assemble a group of fellow mutants to battle against an ageless ex-Nazi named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, a wonderful off-centered casting choice) who has the power to absorb energy, but also wishes to conspire with nations of the world to blow each other up into nuclear oblivion.   

Interestingly, Shaw seems to be the same man that tortured poor Erik Lehnsherr as a child under Nazi rule decades ago, so when Erik becomes a handsome, debonair, and vengeance fuelled adult (Michael Fassbender) his only wish is to hunt Shaw and kill him.  He ultimately crosses paths with Xavier and the CIA, and the newly anointed Professor sees potential in having Lehnsherr as a powerful ally.  Yet, for as close as Xavier and Lehnsherr become as partners with mutual goals, it is their differing attitudes towards mankind in general that ultimately leads to their falling out.  Before that, though, both of them and their newly acquired team of misfit X-Men must race against time in order to stop Shaw and, of all things, prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from occurring.   

 

 

Much like the WATCHMEN, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is cleverly scripted for how it amalgamates fantasy and history with real assurance.  Moreover, FIRST CLASS gets considerable mileage out of its incredibly hip and infectious 1960’s detail, which more than echoes the kind of retro-cool sophistication one gets from watching a Connery-era James Bond film.  It also manages to provide a new portal into the lives and world that these eclectic characters reside in, which consequently gives the film a sense of new character dynamics and an unexpected energy.  Like great reboots, FIRST CLASS subverts our comprehension of the X-MEN mythos, which is what this series needs. 

Of course, the visual sheen and the bravura special effects are here in abundance again (helmed by John Dykstra, who worked on STAR WARS and the first SPIDER-MAN film) and they pack a predictable and satisfying wallop (we get a stunningly and thanklessly envisioned look at Cold War America alongside, for example, incredible shots of Magneto attempting to lift submarines from underwater).  Yet, one of the chief and memorable success of FIRST CLASS is with its impressive casting coup of getting McAvoy and Fassbender, unlikely choices, but ones that breathe with an intense and invigorating suaveness, sure-fire spontaneity, youthful edge and whimsy, and gravitas to their respective roles. 

McAvoy’s take on the unusually hairy and non-wheelchair prone Xavier is both playful (he sure likes the ladies) and solemn: he’s a joyful and freethinking Brit with enthusiasm, compassion, and a sense of duty while also having naïve insecurities and doubts.  Fassbender, on the other hand, makes the most striking impression as Lehnsherr.   The German born and Irish raised actor has emerged as one of the finest performers working today: he gave one of the most memorable performances perhaps of recent memory in HUNGER, was a dashing rogue in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and also helmed a layered and tricky role in FISH TANK.  As Magento he is able to harness this man’s steadfast dedication for revenge (he occupies the film’s most memorable sequences involving him traveling through Europe and America while coldly executing former Nazis) while simultaneously embodying not only his extremist philosophies, but also a sense of lifelong anguish.  We feel for Magneto because of his past even though we admonish his treatment of humans in the present.  One thing is clear: Fassbender’s erratic intensity and edge as Magneto is FIRST CLASS’ finest accomplishment.  He, along with the virtuoso casting of McAvoy, gives the film a striking one-two punch that hopefully will spill over into future installments.

Kevin Bacon is also an offbeat bit of casting for a film like this; he seems completely game and up to the task of playing a highly fashionable and gentlemanly criminal right out of the Bondian catalogue.  Recent Oscar nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence – so rock solid and poised in WINTER’S BONE – rounds off the film’s inimitably diverse cast as a youthful Mystique, and she does a commendable job of relaying her deep insecurities about her abilities and place in the world.  I only wished that the other female roles were developed as well: Rose Byrne’s take as a CIA operative is decent, but forgettable (the script sort of betrays her character by making her appear and disappear whenever convenient) and MAD MEN’s January Jones may be pitch-perfect as her small screen 60’s era housewife, but here she’s lethally stiff and wooden as the blond-sex pot femme fatale mutant teamed up with Shaw.  She is an absolutely alluring physical presence, but as an actress here she is an empty emotional vessel. 

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS has other issues, too: Like its predecessors, the film perhaps has too many side-characters (like the teenage X-Men team members) to have time to fully invest in and develop.  Balancing the film’s dense supporting cast alongside all of its subplots becomes more problematic as the main story progresses.  And, upon modest scrutiny, Shaw’s main plan for global domination  – which involves spear-heading the Cuban Missile Crisis and all out World War III – does not seem that logically envisioned.  How ultimately fulfilling would it be, for instance, to rule a planet void of humans and a planet that has been devastated by Nuclear Armageddon? 

Alas, those are just small grievances, because X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is wholeheartedly a grand surprise: it’s uncommonly well acted, cleverly produced, and shrewdly written and directed.  Filmmaker duties fell this time to Matthew Vaughn, replacing the unavailable Bryan Singer, whose strong handling of the satiric super hero film KICK-ASS more than makes him adept at injecting some much needed novelty into the X-MEN universe.  Instead of taking a franchise that could have become tediously dull with another sequel, Vaughn and company forge a daring and audacious new path for Marvel’s mutant community, fuelled further by the film's ingenious casting, its refreshing period décor, and a revisionist slant on well know historical events.  FIRST CLASS is certainly not as dramatically absorbing and darkly textured as THE DARK KNIGHT, nor is it as thrillingly enjoyable as SPIDER-MAN 2, IRON MAN 1, or THOR, but it certainly embarks on a judiciously bold new path for the X-MEN, and is certainly – and unpredictably – one of the best films of the entire series thus far.  

 
REVIEW ADDENDUM

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS contains a blink-and-you'll-miss cameo that just may be one of the best and unexpectedly funny cameos in an awfully long time.   

  H O M E