Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men First Class

Flying High

First Class is not only synonymous with a classy, comfortable form of air travel (remember that Seinfeld episode?), it's an apt descriptor for Matthew Vaughn's sturdy X-Men movie. And after flying First Class, much like Jerry Seinfeld, I can't go back to coach.

      Imagine you’re about to board a commercial flight. No seat assignments have been communicated in advance. Your buttock is flummoxed. You step foot on the aircraft without the faintest idea of where to lower your gluteus maximus. A flight attendant by the name of Matthew Vaughn ushers you to that lovely place, a cushiony contraption replete with luxurious accoutrements befitting a person of high-class comfort and prestige. It’s conveniently nestled in the front section, prime real estate for air travelers, not to mention exquisite panoramas. It turns out that Mr. Vaughn is actually a film director masquerading as a flight attendant/pilot. And to your astonishment, you’re now firmly aboard a marvel-ous flight, destination comic book heaven. So fasten your seat belt, make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright position, and enjoy the ride. Despite the very real threat of nuclear apocalypse, there’s no need for emergency exits; this isn’t The Last Stand. You’re in First Class baby and privy to the best amenities, both visual and emotional. Yes, Fassbender and McAvoy, I would like some more. 
      Mankind is careening toward nuclear destruction. Post-World War II hostilities are firmly entrenched in world politics, chiefly between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War is mired in an uncertain infancy and the Cuban Missile Crisis marked its first major confrontation. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), mutant proprietors possessing unique powers, strike a tenuous alliance. Prior to becoming mortal enemies, Professor X and Magneto lead a powerful team of mutants on a mission to save the planet from nuclear annihilation. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the malevolent mutant antagonist, conspires with Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), Azazel (Jason Flemying), and Emma Frost (January Jones). Hellbent on triggering World War III, and precipitating a bitter war between mutants and humans, Mr. Shaw conceives a doomsday plot; his focal point of provocation is the impending Cuban Missile Crisis. 
      Charles and Erik launch a counteroffensive, bolstered by an intensive recruitment campaign with the support of Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and the CIA. The two powerful mutant leaders have assembled a crack team that includes Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havok (Lucas Till), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi).  In the midst of their morally inspired intervention, however, Charles and Erik clash. The impetus springs from their opposing views on humanity ("fear leads to hatred") and sacrifice. But their festering hostilities (I'm presuming you've all seen the sequels) set the stage for battle; Professor X leads the X-Men in the noble fight for a virtuous co-existence between humans and mutants while Magneto, chief of the Brotherhood, champions chaos and destruction on a global scale. 

      As the eventual director of X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn inherited one hell of an enormously rushed production. With only a year, and a conglomerate of writers (a six-person script including Jane Goldman), Vaughn's responsibility was daunting. The pertinent question around Hollywood: could Vaughn mastermind a film that combines, not only great action (commensurate with superheroes) with real events, but revives the moribund X-Men franchise, whose remnants from The Last Stand are still keenly felt? The answer is a resounding YES.
      Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are effortlessly charismatic. First Class may be, without hyperbole, the fuel that drives the two to international stardom. Fassbender is magnetic. He is the perfect embodiment of the handsome, suave sophisticate, whose ambitions, dually conflicted, ooze grandiloquence. If Daniel Craig reties his 007 wingtips, Fassbender, as many speculate, is the ideal replacement. McAvoy's supple handsomeness and sharp intensity superbly match the brilliance of Patrick Stewart's sublime performance in the original films. And Kevin's performance is as good as the taste of bacon, only without the grease. He sizzles on the screen. His portrayal of evil, rooted in the brooding, megalomaniacal Sebastian Shaw, is daring and weighty. It teeters on the precipice of over-the-top extravagance, but never actually quite severs the line of believability. Every good movie needs a good villain and Kevin Bacon proves to be every bit of that guy. The creator/monster relationship (among others) between Erik and Shaw represents one of the most dynamic, dually essential character arcs of the story.
      Some critics object to the seeming perfunctory build-up of the ancillary characters (not Charles, Erik or Sebastian). But I'm not one of those critics. The formidable ensemble cast, in my opinion, does a terrific job save for one sullen exception, which renders this man (ME), very mad. January Jones, sultry and bosomy, is suggestive of a charismatic black hole. As fierce a beauty as one could imagine, her performance is as ghastly as one could ever hope to realize; it's like rubbernecking at the scene of an accident involving a brand new Mercedes and an old, rundown Honda. Not so pretty anymore, Ms. Mad Men.  

      First Class maintains the core human dramatics of X2, but far exceeds its vision. While it's not as polished as Singer's sequel, it's much more fun. Vaughn and company interweave established history with comic book mythology (Tarantino-esque ala Inglourious Basterds), intimating a new kind of compelling, albeit fabricated history. As a period piece and origin story, First Class succeeds brilliantly. Undoubtedly, a conscious choice was made to imitate the vintage look and feel of 60's James Bond movies. With feverish pacing, superlative story design, and copious character interactions, Vaughn infuses old-fashioned, globetrotting villains and complex mutants with comic book pathos. The tone is light, but the narrative imprint is lean. 
      Unfortunately, one of my few gripes with the film is the extreme disavowal of the black civil rights movement. The story's primal focus concerns human injustice (mutants vs. humans), but never alludes to the ongoing discrimination of blacks. Where's the conviction for identity politics, the very same identity crisis that distresses the mutant's cause for equality? If Vaughn and company truly wanted to espouse a message of equality, they shamefully missed the opportunity. Ultimately, the movie's message is undercut by the way the movie behaves, glossing over the more relevant details of discrimination. It's impossible to ignore, but the lack of civil adherence or thematic contradiction (SPOILER: Darwin aka the black guy is the first mutant to die) does not impact my overall enjoyment.
      Despite an array of characters and stories, First Class works well cohesively. The dialogue is always charged, occasionally cheesy, and sometimes hilarious (Xavier's drunken schmoozing, anyone?). As the maniacal Kevin Bacon states emphatically, "And we still have the most powerful weapon of all. Me." Shaw's sentiment transitions quite nicely into my next point. The mutant call backs are a little clunky, but the core relationships are wonderful: between Charles and Erik (though a tad dragged on), the budding romance between Mystique and Beast (too cute), and the complex 'brother/sister' relationship between Charles and Mystique. Vaughn does a magnificent job balancing the realistic human dynamics with bold special effects and robust CGI (they don't always work, but it's excusable given the rushed production schedule). 
      What distinguishes Vaughn's direction from many other rising talents is his unique stylization. His mise-en-scène leaves no doubt to viewers: the cinematic proceedings they are witnessing are the work of a brilliant visionary. The stylized transitions during the mutant training sequence (where they learn how to harness their powers), the Beast transformation scene, Erik's submarine moment (powerful), the opening sequence (awesome) the Erik/Sebastian face-off (AMAZING), and the climactic missile launch sequence are each evidence of synchronized, highly inventive camera work. There are stellar fight sequences (when Azazel infiltrates the secret training facility) that seem genuine and meaningful, not manufactured or perfunctory. How unprepared are the young X-Men against the powers of Sebastian and his mutant minions?  Vaughn provides us with these answers without needless exposition or sloppy execution. Conceptually, Vaughn's First Class is authentic and tangible. And Henry Jackman's musical composition is a terrific ally. His sonorous score aides the distinct tonal feel and the ambitious narrative design, even tapping into the sounds of the original cartoon series. 

      Independence Day may have taught youngsters that July Fourth is all about alien invasion. X-Men: First Class is primed to teach youngsters that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, superpowered mutants thwarted opprobrious plans for a third World War. But quite strikingly, Vaughn injects the weighty historical backdrop with a more lighthearted idiosyncrasy. Before jumping into the substantial meat of the story, we witness Professor X manifest his powers in cool ways. Without qualms, without morals, Charles womanizes women as if his last name was Sheen. But this self-awareness and fanboy hipness translates First Class' dire historical consequences into pure cinematic gold. The juxtaposition may seem tangential, but it's thoroughly enjoyable.
      Before Matthew Vaughn's refreshing arrival to the X-Men franchise, Bryan Singer was the man of the mutants. The defining virtue of Mr. Singer's X-Men movies was the unwieldy tone, a tone that resuscitates memories of James Carville's phrase: "It's the economy, stupid." But the iconic campaign message, in terms of an examination of X-Men, can easily be replaced by: it's the seriousness, stupid. The crown jewel of the franchise, X2 succeeded, because of its serious allegiance to the human condition. Singer's signature oeuvre may have shifted into overkill, but that's why 20th Century Fox hired Matthew Vaughn, a director broadly capable (look at his track record) of implanting a tangible human story within the framework of a cartoonish, comic book mythology. And Mr. Vaughn not only Kick's-Ass, he blasts a game-changing home run into the stratosphere. First Class is not only synonymous with a classy, comfortable form of air travel (remember that Seinfeld episode?), it's an apt descriptor of Matthew Vaughn's sturdy X-Men movie. And after flying First Class, much like Jerry Seinfeld, I can't go back to coach.

8.5 out of 10 


  1. Bravo! A provocative, in-depth review as always. I love your metaphor of a first-class flight. And I agree, more McAvoy and Fassbender.

    You highlight a few things I noticed as well, but did not comment upon. Like the black civil rights struggle and why Darwin was the first mutant to die. While this did not mitigate my enjoyment of the film, I thought it was a bit strange that nothing was said of this in light of the horrific church bombings around the time of the Cuban Missile crisis.

    I really do look forward to the next X-Men installment and hope that it will be another prequel such as this.

  2. It is without doubt the best XMen yet. Will it be the best superhero movie of the year? Maybe. After the disaster that was THOR, it remains to be seen if Hollywood can do justice to a comic book remake as they did with First Class. However, I have a sneaky suspicion Green Lantern WILL be the one to beat. I mean, have you seen the trailer?

    That said, I especially loved Emma Frost. The actress who played her did a good job, and her speaking parts were well within the area of normality--where, more often than not, they tend to make the nemesis' dialogue stilted and cartoon-like.

    The scene where we saw a young Magneto watch his mother die was lacking. The child actor who portrayed him cannot act, and though we were supposed to feel for him, we instead felt disdain at his horrible scream--more "I-don't-like-green beans!" than anything else.

    Jennifer Lawrence did an okay job with Mystique. I especially liked her cries of terror. It felt genuine.

    Wolverine's cameo was a fantastic thrill!

    And the action was decent, especially at the end.

    Overall, I loved this movie and I would not mind spending my money to see it again.

  3. judging from the length of the review, I have a feeling you really liked the film, Matty :PP

    Although I'm not interested in anything set in the 70's, I'm watching this because of my beloved creatures - McAvoy, Fass-my-Benders, and three adorable cutie pies - Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence and Lucas Till :)

  4. Wow. Solid review. I originally had no interest in seeing this film but all the positive feedback has changed my mind. I'll be seeing it this afternoon with my friend. I guess Michael Fassbender just makes any movie he is in awesome!

  5. i just saw it last night =)
    wonderful review! i enjoyed the movie, doubted the link to history as positive, but liked how it linked everything

  6. This is more than solid! A superb way to review this amazing superhero movie, Matt!
    Can't agree more with most of your points especially about unique stylization of Vaughn's direction.
    "His mise-en-scène leaves no doubt to viewers: the cinematic proceedings they are witnessing are the work of a brilliant visionary" Love this line :)

  7. Another solid review, Matt!

    I enjoyed the movie more than I was anticipating. Although, I felt that Jennifer Lawrence was seriously misused as Mystique. She a bright and talented actress, but she's settling for sexed-up action roles instead of doing more serious work (vis-a-vis "Winter's Bone"). Fassbender is just plain badass, although I would be sorely upset if he replaced Daniel Craig as 007.

    January Jones was awful, as you eloquently pointed out. I was also a bit peeved with Kevin Bacon, I thought that was a very strange choice for Sebastian Shaw.

    Overall though, "First Class" was above average and a serious improvement on the clouded franchise.

    Great review!

  8. The two leads really made the film. If they play this smart, they can ride this wagon for at least two more movies with those characters. It had a Cold-War/James Bond feel to it and I really liked some of the secondary characters. (And was my favorite summer movie until Super 8.) Looking forward to the next installment.

  9. @ Melissa

    Thanks! I'm pleased you liked my metaphor. It seemed very apt.

    Perhaps, I'm nitpicking, but I feel like Vaughn missed a real opportunity to incorporate the very relevant civil rights movement. The movie's backdrop was predicated upon the ebb and flow, politically, of the 1960's. Why ignore such a seismic cultural circumstance? Not to mention, there are obvious parallels between the mutants exposure to discrimination and blacks. But still, Vaughn did integrate myriad other phenomena into his film, so like you, it does not diminish my fun factor.

    Vaughn's vision and scope was extensive, but not as extensive as it could've been.

  10. @ T.D

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    It is, at the very least, the second best X-Men film. Once I revisit it, I'll be able to gauge it's long term impact, particularly against X2, which resonates, critically, in the same ball park. It could be a situation of 1A, 1B. Both are outstanding.

    Green Lantern looks promising. The trailer enhanced my curiosity. I'll be paying it a big screen visit.

    I disagree. I didn't like Emma Frost's performance. Her dialogue exchanges were annoyingly stilted, her reactions were abhorrent, and her demeanor was anemic. That being said, she is still incredibly beautiful. It's sad that her underwhelming performance marred her otherwise, enchanting beauty.

    I agree with the porous acting in the opening sequence when Magneto loses his mother. But the execution, especially some of the stylized camera angles, was impressive.

    Lawrence's performance was fine. She has potential for more provocative and profound work down the road. Jackman's cameo was awesome. It proves that he's got bundles of charisma. Such short screen time, yet I was still awed. And the action was very solid.

  11. @ Dezmond

    Thanks! Though the movie takes place in the early 40's (World War II) and the early 1960's (not the 70's). I'm not sure if that time period interests you, but I do encourage you to watch it nonetheless. I mean, come on, you love you some Fassbender, Hoult, Lawrence, and McAvoy.

    @ Laura

    Thank you! I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Once I learned that Matthew Vaughn was directing it, I knew it would be a must watch. I really admire his style and sensibility.

    Fassbender is terrific. We'll be hearing his name for a long time. Hope you enjoy it :)

  12. @ Tara

    Thank you, Tara! I'm glad you liked my review, but I'm happier you enjoyed the movie. Let's be real: happy moviegoers are way better than sad ones.

    @ Jaccstev

    Thank you so much, Jaccs! I really respect your movie knowledge and value your judgment.

    Vaughn's stylization is peerless and inventive. I'm always wowed by his choices; how he sets up shots, camera angles, transitions, etc. His movies are always unique, specifically because of his approach.

  13. @ Rachel

    Thank you, Rachel!

    Admittedly, I had high expectations. As soon as Vaughn attached himself to the project, I was sold. I was a bit suspicious of the movie's ultimate execution (largely because of the hastened production schedule), but Vaughn and company did not let me down. I'm glad your expectations were exceeded.

    Your take on Lawrence is interesting and correct. I think there's a really talented actress festering in her body that's just waiting to explode. Once she get's a substantial role that accentuates or inhabits her inner-being (for lack of a better word), she'll wow us.

    I'm glad you agreed with my take on Jones. Just a putrid, utterly uninspired acting display. Bacon was a bit theatrical (almost to an exaggerated cartoonish degree), but I think he didn't breach that line. Although, he was darn close.

    @ Alex

    Exactly. McAvoy and Fassbender were the undisputed stars of the show, in every sense of the phrase. And this prequel does have the makings for a financially potent trilogy, but as you point out, the studio must play it smart.

    The James Bond/Cold War feel is what elevated my immersion. I really loved the interplay between historical events and comic book mythology. When it seemed like the movie was veering too aggressively into the comic book world, Vaughn dovetailed into a recreated War Room. Which, effectively, raised the "historical" stakes. It made for a more engaging and provocative film.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  14. I thought FAIRST cLASS was rather mediocre. The dynamic twixt Prof X and Fassbender was the most successful part of the story that got ruined by 'groovy' young mutants hanging out in their common room showing off tricks. I found much of it corny and the whole revisionist thing was a mess.

    It felt like a rushed production, with so-so special f/x. The movie only went in to production last July and had to speed through post for Fox to have a 2011 summer tentpole release.

  15. Great review; I love the inflight way you guided us~
    Wow, Kevin Bacon as a bad guy; I'm intrigued~
    McAvoy is a fav of mine; can't wait to see his performance~

    Sounds totally engaging~

  16. Matty! You really beat me to the punch - but I got mine posted across the center aisle, so now I can settle in and enjoy yours! As has often been the case - we seem to mostly agree - though you go far deeper with your review - I like shiny things and write about them at about that level. I too was momentarily taken aback by Darwin's final scene, and how it fit into the overall structure - it's such a minefield, though - as you can fall too far on the other side as well, ending up reversing the problem. Or you cast your film based on character's fates and race more than talent playing the part. Tough call, for sure. Interesting points you make about the civil rights movement - but you have a movie already running 2 hours and 11 minutes - and even if you trimmed the fat and used that running time to add in a civil rights subplot - wouldn't it end up getting pretty short shrift and then bring down cries of "why even include it at all if you're only going to barely touch on it for ten minutes?" Imagine though a sequel that takes your idea and builds an entire film around it? That might make for some tasty movie right there... Thanks for the review, pal! Until next time, save us the aisle seats!

  17. Just saw it and, wow - I loved pretty much everything about it. The script was strong, the visuals were impressive..and the characters... they were the highlight of the film. Michael Fassbender in particular, made me LOVE Magnito, despite that his dark side emerged at the end of this spectacular flick. Great.... no... amazing review!:)

  18. @ MOMY

    You're not the first person I've encountered that labeled First Class "mediocre." And I certainly respect your opinion. Of course, I disagree, but movies are rarely (some would never) universally lauded.

    You are absolute right about the "rushed" production. I enumerated that point in my review. In fact, the hurried production actually aided my appreciation. It was extraordinary, at least to me, that Vaughn was able to deliver such a cohesive story given the myriad encumbrances.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  19. @ Ella

    Thank you very much. It's flattering.

    One of Kevin Bacon's most memorable bad guy roles, in my opinion, was his character in Sleepers. Insanely creepy and demonic. But his character in First Class is also memorably villainous, but in an entirely different style and context. Not as creepy, but a wretched specimen nonetheless. And McAvoy was superb. I suspect you'll really enjoy the movie.

  20. @ Craig

    I guess I did beat you to the punch. I just read your review and it was terrific.

    I'm always glad that we can share "critical" seats across the cyber aisle. And yes, we do agree quite frequently. Shared sensibilities are a good thing, for it makes for far more interesting discussions when we actually disagree on a movie. Who knows when that time will actually come, though.

    Calling it a "minefield" is very appropriate. And the fact that the movie was already considerably lengthy (at least as far as summer blockbusters go), it would probably have been too burdensome and improbable to expect a more substantive take on the real life racial discrimination of the 60's era in America.

    The proposition of a sequel capitalizing on the parallel discrimination movements (minorities and mutants) could be a very compelling central- story arc. It's a very topical matter, and quite fertile ground for any kind of polarizing discussions. We shall see. Hopefully, there is a sequel. And hopefully, Matthew Vaughn reprises his directorial duties with more freedom, budget, and control. That could be the genesis of something super-fantastic.

  21. @ Nebular

    Thanks a lot, George! I always dig your opinion, so I can't wait to check out your inspired thoughts. And yes, the characters, particularly McAvoy, Fassbender, and Bacon MADE the movie much more engaging. Fassbender was remarkable, plain and simple. I appreciate the variety and depth of the visuals even more given the minimal time Vaughn and his team actually had to piece them together. That editing experience must've been helter skelter, but they delivered in a big way.