Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

by Trey Hock on June 3, 2011

in Print Reviews

There are movies that make me wish I had the option of the split rock fist, a non-neutral symbol that says this film is as bad as it is good. That’s the way I feel about Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” and I only grudgingly went with the slightly positive, because I walked out of the theater feeling like I had just watched an okay superhero movie.

Still I am disappointed. I am disappointed that this wasn’t an ensemble cast film. Where is the superhero version of “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Wild Bunch?” “X-Men: First Class” could have been that film. There is a seemingly endless array of characters and opportunities that the world of the X-Men offers, and yet this film’s focus is squarely on three white dudes, and their philosophical differences concerning the mutants’ place in the world.

The main story follows Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he and almost sibling Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), later Mystique, join forces with a CIA task force to face a new threat, the Hellfire Club. Led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who can absorb kinetic energy, the Hellfire Club appears to be meddling in the cold war politics of the 1960s and destabilizing an already tense situation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On one of their missions, Xavier runs into Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), the soon-to-be Magneto, chasing Shaw. Lehnsherr has been using his own powerful mutant abilities to track down Shaw in order to avenge the atrocities Shaw committed against Lehnsherr’s family during the holocaust.

The historical backdrop of the 1940s for the prologue and then 1960s for the main story makes for a compelling setting, and the conflict between Shaw, Lehnsherr, and Xavier is solid. Bacon, McAvoy, and Fassbender all give decent performances as the lead characters, with Bacon showing an almost ecstatic joy for his comic-book role.

“First Class” also provides a misguided and miserably unsubtle subplot involving Raven and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) — who will later be dubbed Beast — in which the two argue the pros and cons of being a mutant. Raven makes an afterschool-special-worthy speech about how they should be proud of their differences. Both Hoult and Lawrence have shown their acting abilities in other films, and to watch them bent to such trite and overt ends by Vaughn is almost painful.

Most of the other mutant characters are used as flat puzzle pieces, which when applied in the correct way will solve a problem. Almost no development is given to Havoc (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Riptide (Álex González), or Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and only a little more is given to Emma Frost (January Jones). This parade of characters seems to be for comic book fanboys only and does little to actually further the story.

I did enjoy the string of recognizable character actors in small roles. James Remar, Ray Wise, and Michael Ironside all make memorable appearances. There is also a cameo by one of the characters from the previous X-Men films that is sure to delight fans of the series.

Many will probably disagree with my assessment, but all in all I felt that “X-Men:First Class,” though an acceptable summer diversion, was capable of so much more than it delivered.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aaron Weber June 3, 2011 at 9:55 am

Do I think X-Men: First Class could have been a better film? Oh, yes. But is it the finest, most truly X-Men movie to date? Hands down, yes. It’s big, messy, and operatic. All hallmarks of the X-Men’s nearly 50 year run. And while I am deeply disappointed around some of the individual character choices (though I know why they were unable to not use Magneto’s original team), it’s the most faithful telling of the central themes that have been prevalent in the title since the beginning.

But a point – This film takes place in the same year that the X-Men debuted in print. It’s important to note how groundbreaking it was to not only have Magneto explicitly embrace his Jewish heritage, but to make his survival of the Holocaust central to his motivation. If Captain America and Superman were the best-and-brightest of their creators’ hopes, Magneto represented the dark yearning for vengeance (and the fear of what the vengeance would lead them to) that Lee and Kirby must have felt as well whereas Xavier was the bright light of forgiveness and acceptance that no people should be punished for the sins of individuals. So making it about Charles and Erik is not only a good choice, it’s the only choice if you want to go back to this property’s roots.

To be sure – the film is flawed. The creative choices of Singer and Vaughan are often at odds, but ultimately the payoff is grander than if either single voice had been in charge. The dialogue falls flat at points, but the emotional payoff feels honest and sincere. It’s a film that could have easily broken my heart (and indeed I was prepared for it to do so), but I walked out of that theater knowing I had just experienced the best cinematic rendition of my beloved X-Men that I was ever going to get. And dammit, it was fun.

This will be Marvel’s summer, through and through, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

As an aside – if you want the full on, lifelong X-nerd take on this you should give the latest Four Color Freak-Out a listen. (http://www.dadsbigplan.com/2011/06/fcf-o-episode-4-all-xd-out/)

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2 Chris Drr June 3, 2011 at 10:13 am

You forgot to mention how bad of an idea The Real World: CIA was for the character introductions.

Cory and I were talking about how much cooler the xmen would be if they were just a bit more subtle. A lot more subtle (just because the idea of mutants has so much more potential), and we agree that the plot surrounding the mutants’ place in the world was lame, and in my opinion, very antsy.

Hopefully between this movie and GreenLantern CGI will perish after this summer haha.

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3 Scott Johnson June 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

Wait, I’m confused… did people really expect this movie to be decent? Did they even think it had a chance? Were people eagerly anticipating it’s release? After the third and fourth X-men installments fell flat I assumed even the fan boys would have moved on. And I certainly didn’t see anything in the trailers that made me believe this update would be any different than the last two. I compare it to the Toby Maguire Spiderman franchise, where the first one was pretty good, the second one was great, and we all pretend the third one never happened. It’s so difficult nowadays to like something because it was “an okay superhero movie.” With films like The Dark Night and Iron Man setting the bar, superhero movies definitely need to step up their game and be more than just superhero movies.

I think the dirty dozen you’re looking for will come in the form of the Avengers. But even with the cast it will have, I’ll be a bit nervous till opening weekend.

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4 Trey Hock June 3, 2011 at 11:04 am

Aaron, then they should have just accepted that the story was only about Erik and Xavier, instead of sprinkling in throwaway prop characters that distract instead of add. If you have a comic bias, and nostalgic baggage then this film may payoff, but otherwise it’s just okay at best.

Chris, I don’t think the world is ready for subtle X-Men.

Scott, Nice thoughts, and I hope you’re right about the Avengers.

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5 Aaron Weber June 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Trey…let me frame it this way: The Dark Knight is a good “film”. It’s a fucking terrible Batman movie. X-Men First Class is an okay film. It’s a great X-Men movie.

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6 Trey Hock June 3, 2011 at 4:07 pm

But Aaron what I really want to know is whether it’s a great motion picture, or talkie.

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