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X-Men: First Class
June 4, 2011

Short version: Great film, fun experience, best if you read very little about it beforehand to avoid spoiling some of the surprises. I won’t be revealing any here for that reason.

X-Men: First Class poster

X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the other X-Men movies, establishing how Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) first met, developed their theories on how mutants and humans should interact, and ended up on opposite sides. After a section that follows Erik from childhood and his travels around the world, hunting down the villain, most of it is set in 1962, as said villain (Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, who’s come a long way from that kid who just wanted to dance) is working to engineer the Cuban Missile Crisis. His theory is that radiation makes mutants, so more would be good for his crew, as well as killing off the inferior humans.

Given that the film focuses on the two male leads, it’s nice that they are so attractive to look at. Their “brotherly” relationship at times tips into melodrama, providing plenty of fodder for the slash fiction that will undoubtedly result. (The male bonding when they first meet and wind up clinging to each other is particularly notable.) The movie can be a bit overwrought at times, especially when hitting the emotional high points of Magneto’s childhood during the Holocaust or Mystique’s fear of abandonment due to her unique, blue-skinned and -scaled appearance, but I expect that kind of demonstrative effect from my superheroes, larger than life in more than one way. (I did laugh at how telepathy apparently requires one to put a hand to one’s temple. All the time.)

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier

Speaking of Mystique, she was a lot cooler in the first movie, flying helicopters and going undercover and holding her own fighting Wolverine. But much as the first movie was Rogue’s, this film is about a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) coming of age. Lawrence does an admirable job as a girl with both amazing abilities and obstacles (including a young Xavier clueless in many ways) to face. She’s more substantial, in both talent and real-woman shape, than in previous portrayals.

The young team, the new first X-men, consist of Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee), Edi Gathegi (Darwin), Lucas Till (Havok), and Zoë Kravitz (Angel). All were interesting, in their ways of discovering themselves and their powers, and well-played. I also quite enjoyed seeing Oliver Platt. Although the age was wrong for the story, he’d make a wonderful adult Beast. Instead, he didn’t even get a name, credited as “Man in Black Suit”. (But think Fred Duncan — thanks to KC for explaining that character to me.)

Magneto, Banshee, Xavier, Moira, Mystique, and Havok

Magneto, Banshee, Xavier, Moira, Mystique, and Havok

I was mostly confused when it came to the “other side”, Shaw’s gang of evil mutants. Aside from Emma (more on her later), there was a Nightcrawler-like red devil-looking teleporter named Azazel (Jason Flemyng). (I had no idea his only comic appearance, as explained in that link, was that horrible Chuck Austen story where the demon can’t get to earth without kids to make portals, so he comes to earth to impregnate women to make the kids to allow him to get to earth. Yes, you read that right.) The other guy never even got a name that I heard — he is being credited as Riptide (Álex González), although the power here is making tornados, not spinning or growing spikes. Neither is given a motive, personality, or even much chance to speak.

I enjoyed the period setting and locations, as well as the international feel, although the clothes were too modern. (In general style, they were more 1966 swinging London than 1962; in details, they were clearly present-day.) The pacing of the film was jumpy and episodic, with lots of cuts from scene to scene that could have been rearranged in many sequences and worked just as well. When it came to the parts that needed to match the first movie, they did, in all the meaningful ways. Plus, this movie has the best cameo ever. I will say no more.

Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and James McAvoy (Professor X)

Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and James McAvoy (Professor X)

My biggest complaint was this: When it comes to how the women are treated, we’ve stepped backwards. While the first film had significant female members of the team, this one approaches them as sidekicks. Mystique follows Charles around, then Erik. Angel is a stripper “rescued” by the boys with a pretty power that could have been very useful (for rescues during a particular airborne attack, if nothing else) but is never shown as such.

You could blame this on the time period, but I don’t think that explains it all. Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), for example, starts the movie as a go-getter CIA agent who strips off her dress to infiltrate the Hellfire Club in a cheeky scene that shows her determination and quick thinking. By the end, she’s a moon-y romantic mumbling about a kiss and giving her bosses justifiable reason to say “women shouldn’t be agents.” Is hanging around with mutants that discouraging?

Kevin Bacon and January Jones

Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw) and January Jones (Emma Frost)

And then there’s Emma. January Jones, as always, is flat and wooden, a horrible actor who gets by pointing her (padded) breasts around. If a different actress had played Emma Frost, she wouldn’t have been as much of as sidekick, a pretty accessory for Shaw to order around. The character does have both sets of powers — mind-reading and diamond form — which I found unnecessary and distracting to the concepts the movie was trying to discuss.

Given that the reviews so far have been very good (87% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing), an opinion with which I concur, I’m surprised to see it not doing as well as hoped, financially. (Born out by the 40 or so people I saw it with at a Friday night show, in a theater that could hold 300.)

Nothing else big opened this weekend. It’s a good comic movie that lives up to the source material, with plenty beyond the superheroics to attract additional audience. Is it a pure lack of marketing? I suspect it may not have entered the consciousness of many people who would like it. I hope the good word of mouth — like mine, go see it! — gives it legs, and it continues to build over the summer. I liked it more than Iron Man 2, for example, and I think X-Men: First Class is a fine companion to the original film.

14 Responses  
James Schee writes:  

I honestly forgot it was coming out this week, despite seeing lots of commercials but none seemed to give a release date in memorable fashion. But then given that it hasn’t been under 99 (and has topped out at 105) the last 5 days and my brain is mush right now.

I wonder if not having Wolverine starring hurt it? He was clearly the break through character of the first trilogy, some may just not have an interest without seeing him.

 
Nick writes:  

I don’t know if this explains anything or not, but for based on the reviews I went yesterday expecting something as good as the Singer films and found that it was a kind of uninspired piece on the whole. The character motivations were thin (Magneto: “I hate you, but your whole philosophy is so right I shall adopt it as my own!”) and generally it just felt like it only aspired to be good enough, not great. I was reminded of A.O. Scott’s review of Thor in the NY Times, which wasn’t really about Thor but about the general mediocrity of summer films that aren’t terrible, but just don’t try hard enough to be good. So, maybe bad word of mouth explains the drop from the preview night sales (strong) to Friday sales (weak)? (Or maybe I just assume the whole world secretly agrees with me, but I’m actually totally off the mark!)

 
Johanna writes:  

I haven’t heard any bad word of mouth, but that kind of thing is so difficult to judge and liable to be affected by personal perception. Having just rewatched both Singer X-Men films, I’d say that I liked this one just as much as 1 and slightly more than 2 (which was pretty grim and lots of fighting). The super-spy/60s setting gave First Class a lot of charm and a built-in excuse when things got silly.

 
James Schee writes:  

I wonder…. is it being set in the 60s hurting it? Moviegoers are mostly young people, and they don’t tend to have a great affection for history or the past at times. Also the movie lacks star power, Kevin Bacon is probably the only name person in the film.

Add in that sequels have a tendency to leave a been there, done that type of feeling and that there are so many other superhero movies coming out now as compared to when the first -Men movies came out.

 
The Movie to Comic Problem Again — What X-Men Do I Read? » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] enjoyed watching X-Men: First Class, so I wanted to read comics that would give me the same feeling. Only… what are […]

 
Grant writes:  

Great review.

Didn’t that Jack Black “Panda” sequel come out this weekend? Could that be siphoning off some of the audience?

And thanks for the clarification on the red teleporter guy. I’d never heard of him before. I saw him in the trailers and just assumed it was going to be Nightcrawlers dad or something.

And it use to be you could have super duper mind powers and dress in lingerie and that was enough for most people. But now shes got diamond skin as well? ;)

 
Johanna writes:  

Kung Fu Panda 2 came out last weekend. I just saw the weekend box office — First Class was first with $56 million, followed by The Hangover Part 2, KFP2, Pirates 4, and Bridesmaids. Thor has dropped out of the top five already, but it’s still top ten, and they’re predicting a final gross for it of around $180 million.

 
Grant writes:  

I’m wondering if we’ll get another superhero movie that breaks records like the first couple Spider-Man movies did.

 
takingitoutside writes:  

I saw it with a few friends, we all liked it and none of us had heard anything bad beforehand, so I don’t know about bad word of mouth. I did notice, however, that X-Men is joined in theatres by Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (which I’m guessing all draw exactly the same audience), as well as Bridesmaids, The Hangover and Fast Five (which I’m guessing draw more or less the same audience). I know I’ve seen three or four movies in the past two weeks. Maybe the potential audience is just too split? At least in America, I imagine a lot of people went to see a movie last weekend because of the Memorial Day holiday, and they might not have wanted to go again so soon, or they might have wanted something different, like a romance or a drama.

I’m kind of conflicted about the female characters. More could have been done with them, but I liked how, for example, they showed MacTaggert being aggressively good at her job in the beginning of the film, only to be sidelined by sexist superiors at various points in the rest of it. They could have done nothing at all, or just had some of the CIA guys make an occasional sexist remark, but they proved MacTaggert’s worth to the audience first instead. I thought that made it harder to dismiss the sexism.

That might just be wishful thinking because I think there might be an ulterior motive behind the change in Moira MacTaggert’s character (maybe). First Class seems to be trying to reconcile the worlds of the X-men movies with the comics, to some extent. That is, they’ve putting all of the movies into one world that is different from the comics, and that backed First Class into some corners.

MacTaggert is an old character from the comics. In them, she’s a brilliant geneticist with a complicated romantic history (which includes both Xavier and Banshee) and, eventually, an incredibly powerful mutant son (not Xavier’s). Now, I don’t know if this is where they’re going, but with MacTaggert situated where she is in First Class – and given that her son’s powers seem similar to William Stryker’s son Jason’s powers in X2 – it’s possible they intend to use her as a sort of bridge character.

One of the problems the Spider-man movies ran into was an overflowing cast of characters, and X-men could easily go the same way. If they can tie characters and movies back together – by saying that Moira was involved with Stryker instead of Joseph MacTaggert and her son “Proteus” or “Mutant X” was Jason (who I think was also referred to as Mutant X in X2) – they might be able to keep the series from falling apart. That’s not to say that I like taking a brilliant geneticist and making her into a dazed schoolgirl, but there was a bit more going on there. If nothing else, they took the time to show her doing things throughout the action scenes, to the point where you can argue that she saved a large group of people in a key battle by fighting someone at an important time, if not beating him herself. (Sorry for the lame phrasing; I don’t want to spoil anything.) Overall, I think they might have included MacTaggert as much to set up her character for future films (where, presumably, she would play an even more important role) as anything else, and I’d be happy if they were taking the time for that.

PS: If you didn’t catch it, there were two cameos, not just the obvious one.

 
Marvel Movie Mags: X-Men First Class and Thor Movie Special » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] focus here is the comics, not the movie. Reprints are included of X-Men: First Class #1 and #5 (both by Jeff Parker, Roger Cruz, and Victor […]

 
The World Has Already Changed LinkBlogging: Women, Collectibility, Miniseries, and Gary Groth » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] which show that Green Lantern came in #1, but with under $53 million. That’s less than X-Men: First Class, which cost a heck of a lot less to make! Warner reportedly was expecting $55-65 million, so this […]

 
Vera in CA writes:  

Your comment about women was interesting — I’m a woman, born in the 60’s, and was not surprised or offended at all. In fact it kept the film more real for me — women were pretty much still treated that way in general. You have to put yourself in that era’s society, not see it through the lens of ours. This is just before bra-burning, etc., but that’s coming up pretty soon, hopefully in the next film if the natural progression follows…

 
X-Men: First Class on Blu-ray » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] I thought I remembered the movie pretty well, for my first home video viewing of X-Men: First Class, I chose “X Marks the Spot” mode, which interrupts the film with interview inserts […]

 
Would You Watch a Red Star TV Show? » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] be a Universal movie, but now, “Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, who co-wrote Thor and X-Men: First Class and worked on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” have the option and are planning a TV […]

 

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