It is always good when a movie surprises you – even when some of the flaws that you feared would be in there are still there.
X-Men: First Class brings the X-Men back to its roots after the last two installments (especially Wolverine) managed to underwhelm but this time without the clawed mutant as its lead.
Helmed by director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) First Class tells the story of how Magneto and Professor X first met and links the mutant history to the Cuban missile crisis. Contrary to many prequels this movie actually succeeds in making the backstory interesting.
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy prove more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of Gandalf and Captain Picard and while they never manage the gravitas of their earlier incarnations one can forgive that by saying they are still youthful and not yet the respectable future-selves.
Returning from the original characters as well is Mystique (formerly portrayed by Rebecca Romijn) this time around played by Jennifer Lawrence (who got an Oscar nomination for last year’s Winter’s Bone) – the rest is a completely new world… more or less.
Without caring much for the previous storylines Mystique and Professor X now share a common backstory that was never hinted in the previous movies – but seriously, who cares? Their history is interesting, feels natural and makes for some nice conflicts since Mystique turns basically into the mutant caught between two ideologies and having to chose between them.
The story of Magneto is the story of a Jewish boy who was discovered by a Nazi-scientist in a concentration camp and whose powers were abused by the cruel Dr. Schmid – Kevin Bacon with a hilarious German accent, but hey at least the film goes the Inglourious Basterds routine in giving us native language with subtitles instead of translating everything into English.
While being on a revenge mission during the cold war to get the people responsible for his suffering Magneto and Professor X finally cross their path and start a cooperation that will turn into a mutant-bromance.
The movie works best when the scale is small. For example when Fassbender proves that he cannot walk into a bar without meeting Nazi’s (but this time he knows how Germans order beer) or when Charles and Raven/Mystique discuss how it feels to be a mutant.
What this incarnation of the X-Men does way better than the original 2 movies is capture the feeling of relief, the feeling of not being alone. X-Men was best when it was about how people treat things that are different – and this is where First Class shows its skills since it is all about people who thought they were freaks and forever alone meet others like them.
And suddenly your freakish abnormality becomes something that connects you to them, that makes you proud.
The hatred they feel by humans is there, it is handled ok but it was done way better in the original two movies since behind many evil guys was a genuinely scary mutant experience (see the freaky two-eye-colored kid that made her mother drill her brains out… I mean wow…) whereas here it sometimes feels too much like a set-up, meaning scenes like “oh don’t kill us normal guys… kill the mutants instead! Nudge-nudge-get-it? We-are-like-totally-hating-on-mutants-right-when they-are-not-sure-which-one-to-trust….”
Where the movie looses its momentum is when it comes to the villains, first and foremost Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who seems to take Godzilla-science to a whole new level when it comes to his final plan. Matthew Vaughn deliberately uses the 60’s setting as a throwback to James Bond movies, so one could justify the villain’s blandness.
My problem is that until Casino Royale I had never been a real fan of James Bond since the villain’s schemes mostly escaped any reasonable cost-benefit analysis and the villain was mostly a villain… because there had to be one.
This is especially tricky when it comes to X-Men, a franchise with one of the most interesting and charismatic villains around – and since Magneto is along with Xavier the character drama rests with them whereas Shaw is basically just another bad guy that gets the plot going.
Also Shaw’s second in command Emma Frost (apparently a big deal in the X-Men comics) is portrayed incredibly dull by Elenore from The Boat that Rocked and serves more or less as an “anti-Professor-X-now-with-shield-powers-wearing-revealing-outfits”.
Thinking about the “character” of Emma Frost made me realize the big problem that X-Men is always facing: having to mask their gimmicks.
I am pretty sure that when the X-Men were created a lot of times it was “hey let’s develop this cool power” and then they had a lot of comics and years to justify a characters existence. And seeing as the first movie managed to make us care about a quasi invulnerable, superstrong guy with metal claws I’d say it’s just a matter of script to sell mutant powers.
It works great with Professor X, Magneto, Mystique as well as the entire “First Class” in this movie because we spend time with them, but for Shaw, Ms. Lingerie and Devil thing that looks like that guy from X2 in red… not so much.
If X-Men have no story to tell about their powers and how it affects them they become mere CGI-candy, not really interesting. Magneto’s powers as well as Professor X’s are incredibly large, it could easily go into ridiculous directions, but because we know so much about them what they can do becomes less important than what they are and feel.
Contrary Shaw and his minions just come across at people who got their powers handed by the allmighty plot and don’t really know what to do – I guess it’s the downside of turning the most interesting villain temporarily into a good guy, what remains can’t really hold a candle to Gandalf.
Bottom line and Rating:
There are many problems with this movie, but when it works it works better than many comic book movies (see bar scene)
It restores the wonder that was lost in Wolverine
Making it a period piece also helps a lot for a new experience, although they could have gone a bit further
On a tiny nitpick-note: I just hope superhero movies will someday stop with lazy attempts of tongue-in-cheek humor where they are basically saying “Hey guys, we know it is a stupid name, we know it looks stupid, but to show how hip we are we have to comment on that fact”. Lines like:
“And you should be called ‘Magneto'”
“Oh yeah… what a RIDICULOUS name… get it? Still I’ll call myself by that name in the next movie”
Lastly X-Men: First Class puts a big sign towards last years’ Kick-Ass making you wish the direction would have had less restraints
Still it is a movie that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, it is a fun ride with an especially funny cameo and except for the last 2 minutes – where I was rolling my eyes at how incredibly average/formulaic the last scene was – X-Men: First Class is worth it’s money.
Note: thanks to my incredible linux skills I still haven’t yet figured out a way to properly and efficiently edit pictures so moviequations will be done another day.