Title: X-men First Class
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Play Time: 2h 11min
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
There’s a straightforwardness to X-Men: First Class that seems almost radical in 2011. Projected in two dimensions, cleanly shot in bright colors using a tripod, edited together for maximal clarity, filled with simply drawn and engaging heroes and villains, Matthew Vaughn’s splendid action film deploys the latest technology in the service of old-school Hollywood competence. As comic book movies go, First Class may not have the flair of Raimi’s Spider-Man or the moral heft of Nolan’sBatman films, but it’ll stand against any rival for sheer entertainment value. After Kenneth Branagh’s fumbling, borderline non-sensical Thor, this sort of fundamentally sturdy effort is exactly what I needed.
It doesn’t do everything right. It’s a bit too concerned with nerd cred, for one thing: it’s a prequel (the subtitle refers to the first group of students to enter Professor Xavier’s mutant academy, though the movie centers on the relationship between Xavier and his friend Eric Lehnsherr, who later becomes the villain Magneto), and as such can’t resist the requisite in-jokes and sneaky references to the canon. It’s an origin story, too, which means it has to take frequent breaks from the plot to hurriedly get all the pieces in place. You can hear the gears grinding a bit; feel the weight of the mythology to which the film is beholden.
As a non-aficionado, I mostly let that stuff float past me and enjoyed First Class‘s less geeky pleasures, of which there are many. Cinematographer John Mathieson’s gorgeous, immaculate compositions: the pitch-black hull of a cruise ship quietly reflecting the equally black water below; the brutal symmetry of a grey, blocky parking garage; the warm glow of the Oxford bars from whence young Xavier emerges. Matthew Vaughn’s devious way of offhandedly surprising you: watch an early scene in the villain’s wood-paneled office for the way it suddenly ups the stakes with a simple reverse shot. (The bad guy is played Kevin Bacon, which is delightful, though his character, largely a retread of Magneto in the earlier films, is sadly so-so.) The action scenes, which are fluid, lucid, striking, beautifully edited. The fact that the characters speak different languages when in different countries — such a simple and valuable detail.
Kevin Bacon’s cheesy villain aside, the characterization is direct, and effective, backstopped by expert performances. James McAvoy has the hardest job as Xavier, the cocky, brilliant geneticist and telepath, having to play smarmy and righteous at the same time. He somehow manages to convey the latter without backing away from the former; it’s a nuanced, finely calibrated performance, broad enough for a comic book hero but specific enough to feel plausible. Indie darling Michael Fassbender is also effective as the coolly determined Lehnsherr; he sheds light on Ian Mckellen’s performances as the villain in the prior films.
Finally, there’s the subtext — like the rest of the franchise, X-Men: First Class is keenly aware of the material’s ripeness for civil rights allegory. Despite taking place in the 60s (the main plot offers an alternative account of the Cuban missile crisis), the film ignores the obvious contemporary parallel, and instead embraces the specter of the Holocaust — Lensherr was tortured for his gifts by the Nazis, and his subsequent quest for mutant supremacy is driven by that pain and anger. The irony, of course, is that, for all his rage at genocidal maniacs “just following orders,” Lehnsherr-turned-Magneto’s plan to assert mutant supremacy itself has a Nazi ring to it. Vaughn cleverly makes the X-Men emblem in the title card appear on the flip side of a Third Reich coin.
The film takes this stuff seriously (there’s also a nod to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — why should these people need to hide?) but doesn’t let it overwhelm the good, clean action movie fun of its surface. The latter is flawlessly executed all the way to the end, letting some stylized Dutch angles sneak into the key final confrontation, and concluding with a simple, non-showy set-up for a sequel (and the remainder of the series). It’s hard to make a lot of lofty claims for X-Men: First Class, except this one: it’s good.
— Eugene Novikov