I could watch an entire new X-Men trilogy centered on these two hanging out.

The obvious thing to get out of the way is that X-Men: First Class is the best of that particular franchise of movies. Easily.  It is one of the best of the superhero movies period.

While people still tend to say X-Men United (the second one) is a really good movie, it pretty much isn’t. It’s better than the first one and that’s about all you can say for it. The X-Men trilogy without First Class added (and the less said about Wolverine the better) is mostly a cheesy mess with some superb casting, a few great performances and cool moments, and a seething well of missed opportunities and utter nonsense.

But this is not a review of those movies, let alone the entire franchise. Maybe that’ll come at another time but let’s take the focus back to First Class.

Most of our new heroes.

For an origins movie of sorts, First Class has a sense of scope that quickly sets it apart. It’s a movie that has no problem waiting til the second act to start introducing the new junior mutants. There’s an unflappable confidence behind the time it takes with setting things up and it gives the movie a smoothness that makes accepting some of the goofier elements a bit easier. Kind of like the mystique of the era it’s set in, really. This confidence is especially apparent in the early scenes showing Erik Lennsherr (Magneto, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy, also goddamn awesome). We’re allowed a pretty good in on who Erik is before he meets Charles, how they are very different men, and how the seeds of their eventual schism are sewn. The care that went into the characterization is palpable throughout the movie and is probably its greatest strength.

Aside from this, the rest of the casting is great. Nicholas Hoult (Beast) and Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique, and already notable for Winter’s Bone) are major standouts. They get the best of the subplot stuff which mostly deals with the effect being a mutant can have on outer appearance. Mystique is an interesting character here, meant to show us someone caught between different philosophies about mutantdom as well having a mutation that sets her very apart from everyone else in the movie (until Azazel shows up or Beast gets furry). Her role in what passes between Charles and Erik is pivotal which ups her profile in the movie ahead of everyone else in the movie short of them. The other new mutants are fine, though there is some goofy teenager antics and bravado that feel a bit more true to our generation. Still, they’re not around enough to strain and I have to applaud any movie that makes Banshee work. Cuz fuck, here’s a guy who flies by screaming at the ground.

The cast is part of what makes the movie fun. Although being a mutant is a scary thing, given the attitudes of normals, First Class does not forget that having powers is something people want. It does a great job of tapping us into what is good and bad about being different and it mostly accomplishes this brazenly, with no preciousness or subtlety. Normally I’d say such an approach would fall flat on its face but it mostly works here. Later on there is some truly ridiculous scenes featuring menacing military men and politicians who take exception to mutants. That part doesn’t work as well and is contributive to one of two major flaws in the movie. That first one I’m on about here is a sense of goofiness that sometimes gets a bit beyond the movie but never so far that the characterization doesn’t reign it right back in.

The other major flaw is the artificiality of getting all the dominoes right so that the end of this movie can feed directly into the first X-Men. This means that little things like the origin of X-Men as a term have to be explained and characters have to be in the right mental place to become supervillains or whatever the fuck. It rings false in the last 15 minutes, especially Magneto’s arc. I don’t want to spoil much but having a man of action like the version Fassbender is playing suddenly turn into a speechifying leader of mutant revolution feels unearned and hollow. It’s probably the result of different versions of the script being fused to make the continuity work and it’s a black eye on the movie, but one it ultimately bears out fairly well.

To me, the problems comes down to priorities. In fact, Magneto as a character is a good metaphor for this movie as an entity. One of the film’s priorities is to line up as neatly as possible with the core trilogy we already know (and mostly revile… well, at least me). However, this priority is tacked on to a movie that is confident and methodical enough to take its time getting characters to where they need to be to meet it. So we get an ending that is a pile of weird anti-payoff. Likewise, Magneto is this particular guy all through the movie only to turn on a bunch of priorities which are admittedly buried but not properly developed. It isn’t quite jarring enough for me to say it “comes out of nowhere” but I do think that there isn’t enough character work, especially with Erik, to earn it. A few supplementary choices in the ending also come off clunky as a result. So there is a priority shift. You can literally see the movie switch gears to get into that mode, and you can hear it when Erik confronts Shaw for the last time.

Those are the flaws that I think are more directly communicable to other people and not my own personal nitpicks. Someone who tries to say that having the camera rest meaningfully on Darwin when Sebastian Shaw talks about mutant slavery isn’t a goofy fucking choice (and I don’t care how prevalent an issue African-American rights were in the 60’s) is just talking shit. It’s goofy, guys.

I’m also pretty sure there’s no argument that those last minutes of ducks getting rowed aren’t clunky as fuck, but there are justifications for it which ultimately explains why people are being very kind to this movie, kinder than they necessarily have to be. Charm. It has this in spades. In fact, it reminds me of Star Trek (the JJ Abrams one, obv) in that it’s a movie with flaws, especially on the page, that is still a plated champion due to tone, character, and the charm of the cast.

But that’s the major stuff. Other criticisms are a bit more nitpicky. But hell, it’s sort of fun so let’s allow me to be nitpicky for a minute or two.

I like the villains, sort of. Kevin Bacon is having amazing fun playing Shaw and the visualization of his powers is awesome. He stomps half a building away. It’s great. For my money, Shaw is a much better villain than any in the other movies. And yes, that includes ridiculous Gandalf the Mutant Magnet shit. Not that Magneto isn’t a good villain, all things being equal, it’s just that Singer’s movies didn’t do him many favors.

Two pretty well-designed villains contemplate each others’ villainy.

Aside from Bacon, the others are kind of a mess of lazy writing and wildly unbalanced design. Emma Frost is a good character and gets some play, but certainly not enough as she is dropped out of the movie just when things get climactic. The diamond effect was better realized in the comics, especially Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. It mostly looks bad in the movie. Like sub-T1000 bad. Azazel is a very well designed villain who never gets to say much but looks awesome. He fared well but never gets a fair shake as a character. We might infer his motives by his appearance, but First Class drops the ball by suggesting that the villains have some right to their villainy (as is made more evident by the end and Magneto’s overall attitude) but doesn’t want to show us these characters in that way. They’re mostly just henchman. And that brings me to fucking Riptide. If you don’t know his name it’s because they never tell you who the “tornado guy” is. His powers are also stupidly realized and the guy never says a word. He just stands around looking sexy and European, sort of a weird counterpoint to Emma Frost’s consta-cleavage (one of her superpowers is her rack, right?). So for me, the movie loses some points for the messy villain stuff. But mileage varies and all that.

As for the heroes… well, they get a bit more characterization but barely. I’ve already covered Beast and Mystique (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say she hangs with the X-Men for most of the movie). Banshee gets to be a bit of a clown but they dropped his Irish origins except for that he’s a ginger. Darwin is the token black guy, which this movie seriously has one of, and well, what happens to black guys in scifi-fantasy movies?

Yeah, uh… spoilers? Smooth move, movie.

Havok I guess is supposed to be Cyclops’s dad (they kept his name as Alex Summers) this time around but he’s not the leader type, more of a bad boy who may be kind of a bully. In the comics, Havok is Cyclops’s brother but with more than 20 years between them presumably in the slightly retconned movie universe, that seems unlikely at this point. Maybe a sequel will review their proper relationship but for now my theory is they’ll change it and say Alex Summers is Scott’s dad.

There’s also the new Angel, who was a stripper, and is the stupidest character in the movie aside from Riptide. Angel has magic pixie wing tattoos and spits balls of acid-fire or something. I am not making that up. She is a great example of when the goof outweighs the fun in First Class. She’s just piles of dumb.

Although not a mutant, Moira MacTaggert is mostly just there. Rose Byrne is a good actress who has increasingly shown up in smaller roles. After seeing her in Bridesmaids a few weeks ago, I was a bit let down that she has such a constrained role in First Class (and probably won’t be in future sequels).

Phew. It was good to get all that out. Now I can talk about the stuff I liked.

First of all, the scope. I mentioned the scope, right? There’s a scope to the powers here that is incredibly well-realized. Especially with Shaw and Magneto, who gets several fucking awesome sequences where he throws submarines and dock-chains around when he isn’t creatively manipulating combat knives.

In fact, I’d say that the movie almost feels more like it should be about the rise and fall of Erik Lennsherr than anything else since while it tries to give equal weight to Charles’s side, Erik is given much more to do and much more motive for his actions. He’s also a fucking badass. I think a lot of this may be leftover or borrowed from whatever happened to the proposed Magneto movie from a few years back. I was never really a Magneto fan (Wolverine was always my anti-hero of choice in the X-Men universe) but this movie is all about making us all huge Magneto fans. But the ending kind of gets in the way of that a bit for reasons I discussed above. Turning this Erik into the one in Singer’s movies just doesn’t work. He isn’t there yet by the end of First Class. Still, it accounts for the one great moment in the ending which I won’t spoil.

Because Erik and Charles are such great foils and their two actors have a great chemistry, the scenes with them hanging out are the best in the movie. They are partners in crime, globe-trotting to recruit mutants (which sets up some of the best and most fun little scenes as well as an excellent cameo which is just one of a few, only two related to Singer’s movies). They play chess, talk a bit about the philosophy of how to deal with humans, and so on. You also get a real sense of why Magneto stays friends with Charles, in some way, in spite of all the reasons they have to hate each other. Charles is the healer Erik desperately needs, but Erik is also the first and best lost soul Charles desperately wants to save. They are both flawed, one angry and the other naive but both intensely arrogant and willful.

The lighter side of this is the film’s sense of humor. There is banter, especially from Charles. This younger version doesn’t carry the weight that Singer’s version did, so he’s allowed to be a bit more carefree and funny. He’s even a bit of a rake, running around trying to nail women using genetics pick-up lines. It works well, giving otherwise goofy moments a sense of self-awareness that was more exaggerated (rightly) in Kick-Ass, proof that Matthew Vaughan is the guy to balance the elements of ridiculousness and self-seriousness so essential to a comic book movie.

Now that there’s definitely going to be more X-Men movies, I hope they grab hold of their balls and divert from the continuity even more. If they can re-age characters that were present in other movies (Emma Frost for example) or have the relationship between Mystique and Xavier go totally unacknowledged, I think they should sabotage the ending of First Class a bit and give these characters room to get where they need to be to tie in to Singer’s movies, if that remains a serious priority. A lot of people are saying the same thing and I hope there are decision-makers listening to them.

Cuz I’m ready for  more anytime.

Advertisements