June 3, 2011

“X-MEN FIRST CLASS” – First Class Indeed

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth A Ticket:  Superheroes Behind the Camera, Too.
The most substantial movie of the summer so far is, depending on how you calculate, the fifth in a comic book series, a prequel or a reboot.  X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS arrives with its own secret weapons, namely a smart script, a well-chosen cast, some genuine thematic ideas, and even historical scale.
The X-Men franchise has had a somewhat bumpy road in Hollywood, at least creatively.  Bryan Singer’s initial film in 2000 was a step above most in the genre, and then his follow-up, 2003’s X2:  X-Men United was even better, the rare action sequel that wasn’t just bigger, but more thoughtful.  Singer left the series in 2006 for his misbegotten Superman Returns, and his place was taken by the terminally unremarkable Brett Ratner on X-Men:  The Last Stand, which was far less interesting (although the most successful at the box-office, with $460M worldwide).  This was followed by Gavin Hood’s prequel X-Men Origins:  Wolverine in 2009, a bland star vehicle for Hugh Jackman.  That spinoff series may yet continue (Darren Aronofsky was supposed to direct its sequel but backed out after Black Swan hit); meanwhile Fox and Marvel launched this origin story, which overhauls the entire cast and moves the story back to 1962.

This move emphasizes the unusual moral ambiguity that made the Singer X-Men films so interesting.  (Singer has returned to the series to the extent of sharing a story credit with Sheldon Turner; the script is credited to the team of Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz and director Matthew Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman.)  Singer’s films embraced the freakishness of mutant powers as metaphor–most obviously for homosexuality (in one of the movies a teen mutant had to come out to his parents), but more generally for any way in which people were victimized because of their differences from the norm.  (Magneto isn’t just Jewish, he’s a concentration camp survivor.)  The films also had an explicitly political dimension, as senators and other politicians campaigned for measures oppressing the mutants. 
In First Class, the politics affecting mutants are still in the process of forming.  The story covers the period when the leader of the “hero” mutants, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), is a friend and ally of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who will become the villainous Magneto, and the First Class itself, the initial group of young mutants who are tutored by Charles and Erik (they include Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Alex Gonzalez and Edi Gathegi), are torn between the views of the two men:  some wanting to be assimilated into “normal” society, others seeking revenge for their victimization.  The decision whether to join one or the other is less morally clear-cut than it was in the contemporary stories, because Erik hasn’t become a bad guy yet.  This is pretty heady stuff for a genre movie, and it’s made even more so by placing the story within the real-life intrigue of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 
Vaughn previously directed the semi-satiric Kick-Ass, but while that picture was done on a limited indie budget, here he’s got the resources of a profitable franchise behind him.  First Class looks terrific (the handsome photography is by John Mathieson, and the lush production design by Chris Seagers) and it has the kind of epic globe-trotting sweep we associate with James Bond adventures.  But Vaughn keeps the focus on the characters, and the extremely strong cast (which also includes Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt in smaller roles) delivers.  McAvoy and Lawrence are particularly good, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show, absolutely–sorry–magnetic as the movie’s antihero center.  
For all this genuine quality, the movie does have one weakness:  the villains.  With Erik one of the good guys in this story, there had to be an adversary, and he’s a fairly colorless super-rich world-conquering type named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  Bacon gets off to a solid, disturbing start in the opening sequences, where he makes Erik’s acquaintance at the concentration camp, but once he’s in the 1960s, his character and even his mutant powers turn generic and only barely worthy of Fassbender’s level of hate.  Shaw’s henchpeople are Emma Frost (January Jones, looking great in limited clothing and sounding remarkably like Betty Draper), and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), who has some cool-looking CG powers but is the most “comic book” of all the characters, parading around like a cartoon devil, complete with tail.  Bacon and his team feel like a thin pretext for the action, simplistic compared to everyone else.
X-Men:  First Class is so generally strong, though, that even its ordinary villain can’t seriously damage it.  At 132 minutes, it zings along with action sequences that don’t overwhelm the story and characters that have some meat to them.  Since it ends (spoiler alert, I guess) with Charles and Erik assuming their adult roles of Professor X and Magneto, it’s not clear that future entries in the series will be as complex and provocative as this one–but never underestimate a studio motivated to find new facets to a franchise.
(X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS – 20th Century Fox – PG 13 – 132 minutes – Director:  Matthew Vaughn – Script:  Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz – Cast:  James McEvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, January Jones – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."