Review: X-Men: First Class

Beginning in 1944, Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) shoots the mother of young Jewish boy Erik when he refuses to display his apparent mental abilities with bending metallic objects. That same year, a young Charles Xavier gets a visit from a shape-shifter known as Raven, and he promises to look out for her. Cut to the early 60s and Erik (now played by Michael Fassbender) has been globe-trotting in the hopes of tracking down Schmidt. He believes he has found him in the form of Sebastian Shaw, whose world domination plans involve turning the USSR and USA against one another (where’s 007 when you need him?). Shaw also exhibits extraordinary powers of his own. Erik meets up with Charles (now played by James McAvoy), an Oxford graduate and Professor who has been collecting a group of mutants, including Raven, now going by the name Mystique. Still with me? Rose Byrne is a CIA agent who goes to Xavier for help when learning that Shaw has amassed a mutant army of his own, though her superiors scoff at such notions. Will Erik’s ruthless need for revenge against Shaw gel with Xavier’s more measured approach? Jason Flemyng plays the Hellboy-esque mutant Azazel, Nicholas Hoult plays Hank McCoy, AKA Beast, and January Jones plays Emma Frost, Shaw’s own personal psychic. On the human side of things, Oliver Platt plays a mysterious but benevolent CIA supervisor.

I’m not the biggest fan of these films, and never really have been. The mixture of far too many characters and real-world socio-political motivations/backgrounds for certain characters tend to turn me off (same goes for “Iron Man”, only much more so). “X2”, in particular, wasn’t my cup of tea, though I know many consider it the best in the series. So when I saw the trailer for this 2011 Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust”, the somewhat controversial comic book flick “Kick-Ass”) film featured younger versions of the established characters, I had hoped the film would prove a more traditional comic book entertainment version of things that didn’t focus too much on Nazi Germany, and hopefully found a way to incorporate so many characters without seeming unwieldy and undernourished. Basically, I just want a superhero/comic book movie that doesn’t have its head up its arse for a change. Is that too much to ask for? Well, as it turned out, I did have problems with this film, but it’s not as dull as “X2”, not spectacularly inferior and second-rate like “Wolverine”, and not as appallingly concerned with real world geo-political claptrap as “Iron Man”. I’m not sure if I’d say it was better than the first or particularly the third (and IMHO, best) “X-Men” film, but it’s not bad at the end of the day.

I must say that I’m still not sure if this is a prequel to the other films, a re-boot, or something weirdly in between. The film contains the Nazi background to Magneto’s character seen in the earlier films, and the characters are definitely younger than in any of the other films, but the casting changes suggest a re-boot, and an unnecessary cameo by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine just plain confounds. He looks the same age as in the first “X-Men”, and yet there’s nothing in that film to suggest he had met Xavier all these years prior (The subsequent “Days of Future Past” only confused me more, sadly). Also, there is nothing in this film visually or thematically that suggests it is on a different plane of existence to the previous films aside from maybe the casting of younger actors in the main roles. Hell, I figured it was directed by Bryan Singer (“X-Men”, “X2”) or Brett Ratner (“X Men: The Last Stand”), and was surprised to see Matthew Vaughn’s name on the end credits. As I said, the film does bring up Magneto’s Holocaust past, and unfortunately, goes even further than previous films. It’s entirely uninteresting to me, and the whole ‘Nazis + Mutants= Eugenics’ thing is extremely on the nose to me. I don’t want this in a comic book movie, and I don’t care if it is a slavish translation of the comics, because it’s extremely offensive and unnecessary. Maybe I’m overreacting and the eugenics connection is just my imagination (after having been offended by Ben Stein’s attempt at tying in Darwin and Atheism with Nazism and Eugenics in his awfully dishonest “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”), but it bothered me. I was hoping a change in director would see this element eliminated. I have much less of a problem with the Kevin Bacon character being a Nazi (especially once the film moves to the 1960s), it’s more the concentration camp/scientific experiment stuff that really bothered me.

The other issue I have with the film is in regards to the character of Magneto. I never much liked the character when Sir Ian McKellen played him because I think McKellen isn’t as good in villainous roles, but the character itself has gotten progressively harder to hate. In this film he spends about 80% of the time hiding his villainous intentions completely, despite Michael Fassbender’s actual performance being far more believably evil than Ian McKellen. Despite Michael Fassbender oozing evil, the character itself is about as effective a villain as Roy Batty in “Blade Runner”, whose character arc he somewhat follows here. And in case you can’t work it out, I didn’t think Batty was terribly villainous (through no fault of Rutger Hauer’s excellent performance). Magneto strikes me as one of the most sympathetic villains of all-time, and whilst Kevin Bacon’s Shaw picks up the slack, it still bothered me. We’re meant to side with Xavier, I think, but Magneto’s past gives him a rationale to hate humans who were ‘just following orders’, and I actually ended up siding with Magneto. Sorry, but he’s actually right. I don’t agree with murder but I don’t agree with genocide, either. The whole good/evil dynamic has always been toyed with in this series and in this one it’s positively wonky and at the detriment of my enjoyment to an extent. Magneto might be in some ways a complex character, but I don’t want my supervillains to be complex. I like my superhero movies to be about good vs. evil, and Magneto just ain’t all that evil.

Meanwhile, the characters discuss the options of hiding/integrating into human society/fighting back here. Didn’t we get these exact same conversations in all three of the previous films? That made no sense to me and even if this film is a reboot, it was extremely redundant, because audiences will likely have seen the previous films, whether they are connected to this film’s world or not. I guess there’s a redundancy in the Magneto and Shaw characters largely serving the same evil purpose, but given the latter was in some ways a mentor to the former, that makes a bit of sense. I also think the film focuses too much on a bond between Xavier and Magneto from such an early age. I haven’t read the comics, but based on the previous film, I never got the sense that Xavier and Magneto had ever been that closely acquainted with one another. Aware of each other sure, but I couldn’t connect the characters from the previous films to the obviously close, well-forged, and long-standing relationship shown here. That said, I prefer this version of their relationship, so I’m not sure if it’s a problem as such.

Although this film arguably boasts the most talented cast of all these films on paper (perhaps to counter the lack of Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, etc.) the performances are actually a mixed bag. The most impressive performances for me come from Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon. Fassbender might not look anything like Sir Ian McKellen, but his performance is so strong, it deserves to be in a better film. He’s perfectly chosen and absolutely terrific, even if his character is completely half-hearted to say the least. Bacon, meanwhile, seems like an odd choice for a comic book villain, and whilst some have claimed him to be miscast, I disagree. It’s unusual to see him in mainstream fare, but he makes for a fine villain, even if I felt his character was a bit redundant at times. January Jones is also a pleasant surprise as the icy Emma Frost, whose mutant powers make her my second favourite mutant in the series next to Night Crawler. She’s incredibly hot, which helps, but her performance is perfectly fine, too. I don’t understand why she is not a star, she has ‘it’ (And yet I’ve never watched “Mad Men” nor will I likely ever). At the opposite end of the scale is current ‘it’ girl Jennifer Lawrence, replacing the insanely beautiful Rebecca Romijn in the role of Mystique. Chubby-cheeked, with Renee Zellweger’s bee-stung lips, and seriously whitened teeth, she looks patently absurd in the blue Mystique makeup (and a quick cameo by Rebecca Romijn, whilst welcome in one sense, does Lawrence no favours as she looks nothing at all like her). I’ve heard Amber Heard was rumoured at one point to play the part, and surely would’ve been preferable to the overrated Lawrence. More importantly, she gives a horribly mumbly performance.

Hovering somewhere in between these extremes are the performances by James McAvoy, Aussie actress Rose Byrne, and Jason Flemyng. The latter has insanely cool makeup as the devilish-looking Azazel, but when standing next to someone more ‘normal’-looking, he looks a bit much, and the actor’s performance certainly seems to get lost behind the elaborate makeup (The makeup for Beast also renders Nicholas Hoult a bit silly looking as well). Byrne looks beautiful, but in addition to playing a human character (i.e. no fun mutant powers/abilities), her character seems to shrink more and more as the film progresses to the point where one questions if she really is a mutant and that just happens to be her chief ability. I’d even call her character Black Hole, but that sounds a bit naughty, doesn’t it? Once enlisting the aid of Xavier, she does a lot of standing around, whilst Jones’ Emma Frost gets all the fun.  Although he looks a lot younger than Fassbender, James McAvoy is OK as Xavier. I do have to question his method in portraying Xavier’s telepathy, however. You got a migraine there, Mr. McAvoy? How ‘bout a Panadol, buddy? Unfortunately, like the character of Magneto, I have issues with the character of Xavier here. He starts out as a callow, partying college/university student, the Brit equivalent of a beer-swilling frat boy. Whilst the character becomes more serious as the film progresses, the transformation by the end seems so unlikely and rushed. There’s a huge gap between McAvoy’s Xavier and the intellectual, somewhat straight-arrow Prof. Xavier played by Patrick Stewart, even if this film tries to convince us he’s essentially made that transformation by the end of the film. It’s not a huge deal, but I didn’t buy it. He and Fassbender do share an interesting chemistry, however, so one wouldn’t mind seeing them paired elsewhere. Of the rest of the cast, there are too many fine character actors cast as random spooks and military men (Matt Craven, James Remar, Ray Wise, Glenn Morshower etc.) with no depth to their characters whatsoever. They’re just talking heads. Michael Ironside’s casting (credited for some odd reason as ‘M. Ironside’) as ‘Captain’ merely goes to prove how he’s better served in meatier roles as villains, like Magneto perhaps. He’s too good for such a useless, colourless cameo. Oliver Platt is always a welcome presence on screen, but let’s face it, he always plays Oliver Platt, though at least this time he’s not a bumbling alcoholic.

It might sound like I didn’t like this, but warts and all it balances character, plot and spectacle better than the first and second films. No matter what my criticisms, I can’t claim the film is dull. It mostly entertains, especially for those who actually like the current crop of more grounded, brooding superhero/comic book films. I’m not among you, and I’m not a huge fan of the series as a hole and felt this one was a bit redundant, well-made or not. But there’s still lots to like about the film, albeit mildly. The screenplay is by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz (who both worked on “Thor” and several TV shows), Jane Goldman (“Stardust”, “Kick-Ass”), and Vaughn, from a story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner (the remake of “The Longest Yard”, and “Up in the Air”).

Rating: B-


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