Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

The X-Men films thus far have had 2 great films and 2 really, really, REALLY bad ones. The reasons why aren't hard to gage; The X-Men are hard to do right. It takes the right mix of understanding what makes the characters and their world interesting and willingness to tell the, convoluted, contradictory and often downright stupid, comic continuity to go fuck itself. Thus far Bryan Singer's casual fan attitude has worked out the best and now another casual fan, Matthew Vaughn has taken a crack at it. And not only has he made what is easily one of the best comic book movies since The Dark Knight, he's also made the first really good action movie of the year.

You're all familiar with the setup of the X-Men, so I'm gonna keep this one short. There are a bunch of superpowered people called mutants living in the world, but unlike Superman, everyone's scared of them. This one takes place in the 60's and features not only the Cuban Missile Crisis (engineered by the villain of the piece, Sebastian Shaw) but the origins of Professor X's and Magneto's friendship, and the beginnings of the X-Men. Of course since all the FAMOUS X-Men already appeared in the original X-Men films, they've had to rely on the obscure (Havok, Banshee, Azazel) or movie originals, although keep your eyes open for a couple cameos from characters from the original films.

The direction is exceptional, keeping the frequent action scenes enjoyable and exciting as well as highlighting the fun a teenager might have with a superpowers (no whining for these kids). Good direction and writing manage to keep cliched scenes like the inevitable power show off and training montages fresh and engaging. The pacing is good, the characters well rounded, the cast mostly good in their roles.

The script is sharp and well paced, but does suffer from some problems. First off, while it does manage to get back into the intelligent X-Men mold of using mutation as a metaphor for a civil rights battle (in this case the time appropriate African American Rights), it's a little more awkward about than X2 was with it's Gay Rights metaphors (maybe because the director of X2 is, you, so he might have more of an insight). One of the things I like is that, early on in the film, Xavier is presented as naïve and insufferable to Magneto's more jaded and experienced outlook, to the point where it almost looks like it's setting up Magneto as the hero.

The cast is mostly excellent, with special mention to on the heroes side to Michael Fastbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (again justifying her oscar nomination, as if the nominated performance didn't justify it enough). On the villains side, only Kevin Bacon really warrants mention, in a great performance. Azazel and...Whirlwind I think, are so characterless that they might as well be robots (even worse than Sabertooth and Toad in the first one) and while January Jones has good screen presence and looks like a million bucks as Emma Frost, she really isn't given much to do. And while his performance wasn't great, special mention must be given to Banshee who gives character and humanity to his character despite barely any screen time.

The actions sequences are cleaning and exciting, as mentioned earlier. To the movie's credit it does manage to give everyone something to do during the big fight scenes, even if it gets a little shoehorned in towards the end. The CGI is great, as is the now familiar makeup effects used to create Mystiques natural form (although someone needs to put a little more work into Beast's final form's makeup effects, as they look silly more often than not).

There are some other other niggling problems that keep it from reaching the heights set by X2 or The Dark Knight. First off, it has the problem that you can tell who's going to die or turn evil based on how much press they've been getting in the trailers or how well known their actor is. There are some odd directorial choices near the middle (like with Hanna I think the director was getting bored) and the ending comes with very little resolution, although I suppose that's par for the course.

I'll be honest I was more than a little nervous about this one, since the X-Men films haven't been good since X2. But it's one of the top 3 best films of the year so far and a surefire contestant for best action film of the year, so if you're looking for my advice go out and see it, if for no other reason than see what X3 could have been if Mathew Vaughn had actually gotten to direct it. So you give it a glance, and I'll see you next time.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders if Cyclops is Havoc's brother in the movie continuity too.

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