Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011) – Review

Review: X-Men: First Class is the X-Men movie we have all been waiting for – full of great action, wonderful performances and direction that both gets the characters and how to make a fantastic genre film. Writer-director Matthew Vaughn seems to get better with each film he makes. Here, he took on the daunting task of making a sequel/reboot (it is sort of both) to a franchise that was all but dead thanks to the last two films (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) being complete disappointments for fans (and the first two done by Bryan Singer, the main producer on this film, only being ok but nowhere near as good as the great comic book films like Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). This is among the best comic book films (and probably the second best Marvel movie made to date, behind Spider-Man 2). Setting the film in the 60’s is a stroke of brilliance, as it opens the world of the X-Men up to cool stylistic changes and to a period ripe with social and cultural chaos and change (the Cold War specifically, but also civil rights). Vaughn definitely pulls from period influences as some of the early sequences involving Erik Lehnsherr feel like excerpts from a Sean Connery James Bond film and Sebastian Shaw (minus the powers) could easily slip right in as a perfect nemesis to Bond. Critics to the film will say that it is overstuffed and really serves no point (since we already know where the story is heading, given the other four films in the franchise), but this film feels very much like a reboot (and sure, it does nod to the other films, but it does not fit story wise or in the timeline precisely). The characters have all been reimagined in the brilliant performances this fantastic cast gives them. In terms of the film being overstuffed, there is a lot going on in the film – a lot of story, a lot of characters (and origins), as the film needed to serve as both the beginning of a new trilogy (should one happen, and I really hope it does) and a prequel to the other films (should no more X-Men films be made with these actors), making it a very difficult narrative for Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman to form. They do the job almost perfectly. Each character has their dramatic moments, which allows the audience to connect to them, even with very limited screen time. A slight issue does arise during the third act, as the relationship between Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier beings to deteriorate. The actor’s chemistry is so good that the audience is far more interested in their story and their relationship, that the villain, Shaw, and his evil plan do not seem as important. Plus (at least for me) when the film ended, there is such an expectation for more that the ending is unwelcome (especially with potential sequels yet to be confirmed). Vaughn also infused great humor into the film (something that had been in the previous films, but had never quite worked and came off really cheesy and just sort of bad). The humor works great in breaking up the dramatic tension and action and letting the audience release (an important element in creating a narrative that has good pacing). Vaughn does not shy away from the politics and social realities of the period either, as there is a strong sense of women being second class citizens among men in the film (something Vaughn apparently had to fight Fox to keep in the film), which plays off the whole mutants being scared and mistrusted in ‘normal’ human society (a theme prevalent in all X-Men media). Some have also complained about Vaughn and the writers rewriting history by inserting the X-Men into the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that is a fairly poor argument, as taking the film at face value and accepting the world in which mutants exist means accepting that it is different from our own, with its own history. X-Men: First Class may not appeal to all viewers, as it is made for genre fans specifically, but those that appreciate comic book films (and I would argue good cinema in general) will really enjoy what this film has to offer (as I stated above: this is the X-Men film I have wanted to see since I first became a fan).

Technical and acting achievements: Writer-director Matthew Vaughn has developed such a talent for interweaving violence, humor, drama, and action that his narratives not only entertain but also fully engage their audiences. He also brings out such great work from his actors. I (for one) really would like to see Fox continue the trilogy with Vaughn and Goldman directing and scripting the future installments with this cast, as I think they can only get better (and that is saying something given how good this film is), and a credit to producer Bryan Singer as well for coming up with the basic story idea and placing the series in the 60’s (and for bringing on Vaughn to direct). Composer Henry Jackman’s (who also scored a portion of Vaughn’s Kick-Ass) score is very interesting playing off the time period and Bond influences, while also infusing a powerful electronic undertone. It sounds very different from most superhero movie scores, which is refreshing (here is an example). However, he is still able to capture the action and scope of the film well. John Mathieson’s cinematography is very good and he worked well with Vaughn’s stylistic shooting style. His work along with editor Lee Smith’s gives the film a very comic book panel feel, which is really cool and worked well in the transition of the narrative. Mathieson’s lighting also went very well with Chris Seagers’s amazing production design (I pretty much loved all the sets) giving the film a great and unique look in the genre. The international aspect of the film, with many locations, also showcased the brilliant work of Mathieson and Seagers. The cast is phenomenal, with many wonderful performances and great bit part casting. Kevin Bacon (whose performances I am not always a fan of) is very good as the film’s villain. He is a tad zany, but plays the role just like a Bond villain (which I said before), and it works great (Vaughn was able to get just the right performance from him, much like with Nicholas Cage in Kick-Ass). Jennifer Lawrence has a difficult role in the film, with her character’s transformation and acceptance of herself. She plays it very well, reminding us of the great actress we saw emerge in last year’s Winter’s Bone. Even with all the good supporting work, the film completely belonged to James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. They were perfect in their portrayals of Xavier and Lehnsherr. Their relationship and chemistry is a big reason for the film working as well as it does.

Summary & score: With exciting action, funny wit, engaging drama, and beautiful aesthetics, X-Men: First Class has established itself as a premier comic book film (and piece of cinema in general). 9/10

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