Friday, May 27, 2011

X-Men: First Class – spoiler free review (or essay, in this case)

X-Men: First Class hurts.


Not in that physical, 'bouncer removing you from the cinema for smuggling in a mobile phone' way. But in the 'wow, this is what X-Men 3 could have been' way if director Matthew Vaughn hadn’t walked away from it.

In short, X-Men: First Class is bloody good.

In long? Well, that's what all those words below are about to go into…

My thoughts on the third movie of the X-Men saga are numerous and you can read them here (http://www.comixfan.net/forums/showthread.php?t=39073), but for the sake of clarity and relevance:

X1: Good, if flawed and dated
X2: Brilliant
X3: Enjoyable nonsense, but easily worst of the bunch

So I came to X-Men: First Class hoping for something which could match my expectations of X2, or at least avoid the relative mess of X3. My faith in the creative team of Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman had yet been shattered after the largely excellent fantasy romp of Stardust and the surprisingly fun Kick Ass. And here, again, they do a fantastic job where in all reality they should have fallen flat on their faces given the stupidly difficult task at hand.

"X-Men! Welcome… to die!"

Vaughn had to create a film mired in canon and coming off the back of a critical mauling, with a shifting production team, a swiftly re-written script and less than 18 months to film the entire thing (apparently principle photography started in August 2010). And yet, First Class remains one of the most tightly structured, coherent and well rounded superhero movies ever made.

X-Men: First Class brings together the story of how Erik 'Magneto' Lehnsherr and Charles 'Professor X' Xavier first met, formed the X-Men and eventually became bitter enemies. Using the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis as its frame, the tale whips along at a breathless pace, taking us through the Holocaust, Cold War paranoia, the Civil Rights Movement in America, mutant powers, developing friendships and the consequences of violence both explicit and implicit. But it never feels bloated, nor does it lose you for its 2 hours running time. This is lean storytelling that manages to be coherent, exciting and deep, while battering through its narrative with punk rock efficiency. Nothing is wasted.

Given the large number of characters, it's only natural some get a little left by the wayside in the wake of the story's main focus – the relationship between Erik and Charles, played by a wonderfully good Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, respectively. Measured and convincing, they perfectly capture the mannerisms of their counterparts from the previous films (Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) while adding some ticks of their own, making them incredibly fun to watch. Jennifer Lawrence also turns in a great performance as Raven 'Mystique' Darkhölme, acting as the foil between the two and ultimately, their conscience.

"Peace? Peace was never an option."

When combined with the film's main villain, Sebastian Shaw (ably played by the talented Kevin Bacon, who thankfully makes a rare appearance without his usual co-star – his naked butt), X-Men: First Class' strengths really come out. It's easily the most thematically solid movie of the four, playing with concepts of what it means to seek and exact justice and the scar inducing issues of prejudice and paranoia – with several key elements recurring through the film, such as man vs monster (when one blurs into the other and how a monster is created by the actions of others), racial pride vs fear and war vs peace (as the mutants themselves become metaphors for weapons of mass destruction more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis itself).

The most prominent symbol in the movie is also the most devastating – a single Nazi gold coin. Used at several junctures in the story, it manages to become a massive collection of metaphors in itself, showing us greed, intolerance, fear, corruption and violence, both symbolically and literally. It's a permanent and powerful motif in First Class, acting as a reminder that Charles and Erik (as well as Erik and Shaw) are two sides of the same coin, while also representing the circular nature of violence. And, as comic book writer/columnist Rich Johnston correctly pointed out, it also acts as visual opposition in a grand game of noughts and crosses, Erik's round nought/coin vs Charles' X/cross – War Games, indeed.

If there are any problems with X-Men: First Class, they're fairly minor. For a start, Shaw's big evil plan is a bit poorly thought out. It reminded me of Deacon Frost's supposed master plan in the first Blade movie – not very clear, a fair bit short sighted and the reality of it not quite matching the moustache twiddling machinations of the maniac plotting them. Which may well be the point, but at the same time it took me out of the film a tad. As did the occasionally trite nature of trying to pack so many "ah, so that's why...!" moments into the movie for fear of never having the chance to create a follow-up (they will). Some of the inclusions come the film's end are unnecessary and come off too neat for the sake of completeness. It's a similar criticism I have of the wonderful theatre production, Wicked, where I thought it went out of its way to answer every single motivation and character genesis for The Wizard of Oz. Same with First Class, which almost bends over backwards to offer explanations to every facet of Charles' and Erik's relationship, something which will only become more complex as more movies are created. 

First Class also lacks scenes with the visual flash and flare offered by X2, such as when Nightcrawler storms the Oval Office or the jaw dropping madness of Wolverine and Deathstrike stabbing the merry hell out of each other in a brutal ballet. While the set pieces in First Class are fantastic, it would have been interesting to see what Vaughn would have done with the anti-gravity fight scene he dropped after seeing Inception.

But these are easily forgivable missives because First Class arguably manages to be the more accomplished movie of the quartet through its strong themes and very relatable human tale, dressed in gaudy superhuman clothing. Is it as good as The Dark Knight? No. But it's on par with X2 as the best X-Men movie made, and easily among the better superhero flicks created. And the cameos (both stealth and overt) that fans will notice are inspired, with one in particular firing off the most hilarious use of "go f*ck yourself" since Anchorman.

X-Men: First Class is top draw. A remarkable achievement against heavy odds that could have been a agonizing experience for all concerned. Instead, it's merely the birthing pains of what will hopefully be a new era for the franchise...

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