Movie of (Last) Week: X-men First Class

XMen-FirstClass

With the various worlds of Marvel dominating my attention lately (both because of Winter Soldier and other personal reasons) it felt appropriate to direct Shiran to what I feel is the only truly good X-men film for last week’s movie. I don’t think there’s really much argument to be had there; despite the important role that Singer’s original films had in the growth of superhero films, they don’t age particularly well, and the subsequent gun-for-hire installments definitely felt like the mindless, personality-free moneygrabs that they were. Indeed, other than Hugh Jackman’s all-timer performance as Wolverine, the initial X-films haven’t provided much long-term pop culture impact within the genre. First Class is the closest that the franchise has come to capturing the comics and the characters in full, though it’s still not perfect in retrospect.

First Class works quite well as a companion to Captain America: The First Avenger (and to Inglourious Basterds too, in part), and the very matter-of-fact way that Matthew Vaughn reshapes the beginnings of the X-men into an alternate history Cuban Missile Crisis is very entertaining to see. He takes it a step further though, calling on not just history but the films of the time period in constructing the world. The swank style (particularly the suave machismo of Magneto) recalls Connery-era Bond, while the American war room in the finale is pure Strangelove. It’s a shorthand that works quite well, both in establishing the time quickly and helping the film stand out as something distinct within the superhero genre.

But the biggest strength of the film is the characters, without a doubt. While some of the secondary characters are kept very basic and broad-stroke, they are still drawn clearly enough to make them each stand out, and the major characters really shine. Seeing Professor X as a womanizing, pub-going lad gives him some much-needed definition beyond his idealistic speechifying, and James McAvoy does a great job having fun with Xavier without losing his essential gravitas. Similarly, Mystique (played here by a just-before-she-blew-up Jennifer Lawrence) is taken beyond her earlier one-note femme fatale archetype and shown as a young woman struggling with her growing disillusionment with the idea of fitting into “normal society.

Nicholas Hoult also does a great job as Beast- my favorite X-man if anyone’s keeping track- showing his scientific hubris, his infatuation with Mystique and his unintentionally dickish focus on appearance all with equal aplomb, all of it culminating in the sad and scary transformation sequence before the climax. And then of course there’s Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, a pure force of badassery that tears through every scene he’s in, only to reveal in the quiet moments that he’s just a lost, lonely boy who misses his family and fears ever being hurt that way again. And we haven’t even talked about how well all of these actors play off each other, and how every character contributes to every other character’s arc and growth in the story. This film is, if nothing else, a great example of how an ensemble cast should be.

The biggest downside for the film though is that the relentless pace and sheer amount of elements at play mean that a lot of moments (both plot- and character-centric) are only given the briefest face time. While enough is still done to get the points across, the potential emotional impact is lessened by how quickly these moments are moved through, in a way that might not have happened if the film had either been more focused (and lost the B-plots that help the world feel fleshed-out) or larger (and potentially lost the strong, quick pace). This is also why a lot of the secondary characters have to stay one-note. But in the end, with all that had to be done to make this story work, there might not have been a better way to accomplish it, and the results are certainly successful enough to keep me from being too disappointed in any way. It might not be perfect, but it’s the kind of X-men film I wish we had more of.

And here’s Shiran’s reaction:

Despite having watched the cartoon when I was a kid, I’ve never seen any X-men movies before this one and have forgotten a lot about the characters, and I definitely think my ignorance influenced my experience for the better. My knowledge of the X-men mythology is rudimentary enough that I knew Magneto would become a villain, but had always assumed Mystique was one of the main heroes of the series (probably because from a layman’s standpoint she’s the most distinctive looking and iconic character) and approached her as such throughout the whole movie. The film makes her pain and point-of-view so relatable and endearing that I viewed her as the main protagonist without any reservation, which made the final scene even more touching. When Wikipedia finally informed me that Mystique is actually a core supervillain, I was doubly impressed with the lively and empathetic way Jennifer Lawrence portrayed the characters — to be honest it may be the most interesting performance of hers I’ve seen. I know it’s common now for superhero movies to make villains morally grey and relatable, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film do it as completely and successfully as this one. Truthfully, I think if this film existed in a vaccum with absolutely no context of the Marvel universe behind it, it would be impossible to pick out who the movie treats as ultimately “good” or “bad”.

We will have Shiran’s choice for THIS week up soon, and then ill be back behind the wheel. For next time, think: Classic.

 

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