X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class (2011) – This article was originally published on 12ftdwende.com on 3 June 2011

As I believe I’ve mentioned several times before, I am a geek. I may not be as hardcore as some (you should meet my friend Joe), but I like superheroes and science fiction and all that awesome stuff. Of all the superheroes, my favorites have always been the X-Men (I am defining “superheroes” as those with superpowers… overall, I’m still a Batman fan). My first exposure came via a cartoon from the 80s (of which there was apparently only one episode… and for some reason Wolverine was Australian) but it really grabbed ahold of me with the 1993 animated series. Then I checked out the comics (particularly the Ultimate X-Men ones before Jeph Loeb had to come around and ruin the whole god damn Ultimate Marvel imprint… but that’s a rant for another time and place) and I was flat-out hooked. I loved the characters. I loved the dynamics of the team. As I grew older I loved the very obvious analogy to the civil rights movement.

2000’s X-Men was a movie I didn’t expect to be very good. Perhaps because my expectations were so low, I was very impressed by it. Then 2003’s X2 blew me right the hell away. The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer (who, as an openly gay man, emphasized the minority rights angle of the story) delivered two massively entertaining movies. Then he had a falling out with Fox and left the series to go direct Superman Returns… leaving 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand in the hands of Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, After the Sunset). The results were… well, “absolute shit” might be going too far but “kind of shitty” doesn’t seem to go far enough. The film was rushed into production without devoting any time to fix the many problems of the script (or fixing some of the film’s dodgy special effects). Fox did not learn its lesson (probably because The Last Stand still made a ton of money) and made pretty much the exact same mistakes with the prequel-spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. So at this point the series is about half-and-half. In the meantime Marvel has been making its own movies which as I pointed out before have been pretty impressive. They’ve brought the interconnected world of the Marvel Universe to the big screen. Because Fox still owns the rights to making the X-Men films and will only lose them if they stop making X-Men movies (that’s what happened with the Hulk movies), the X-Men and the crusade for mutants’ rights has yet to be integrated into the cinematic Marvel Universe. I personally would prefer to see Marvel take back the reigns of its (in my opinion) most awesome property.

Of course, Fox doesn’t want to lose such a successful franchise so they’ve cranked out another one. They brought back Bryan Singer too, but conflicts prevented him directing so he is solely credited as a producer. Matthew Vaughn, who had some fun deconstructing the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, came in to direct. One of the few things I liked about the Wolverine film was that the climax of the film is set on Three Mile Island and the climactic battle is supposed to be what “really” happened during the 1979 meltdown. So I definitely was intrigued by the idea of the formation of the X-Men corresponding with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (a year before a certain comic book debuted). So does the movie bounce back from the previous two misfires?

Yes. Yes it does. The 1960s-setting even brings a sort of Connery-era James Bond-style cool to the story. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, from Atonement) is a young recent graduate of Oxford (with hair!) who uses period-appropriate words like “groovy” and tries to pick up co-eds in bars. He is accompanied by his “sister” (not really) Raven Darkhölme (Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter’s Bone), a blue-skinned shape-shifter he found as a child breaking into his Westchester mansion. In a separate storyline, Erik Lensher (Michael Fassbender, from Inglourious Basterds) is a Holocaust survivor tracking down the Nazis who killed his family… in particular the scientist who killed his mother just to get him to use his metal-moving powers.

We’re also introduced to CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, from Sunshine and Bridesmaids), who is investigating a suspected communist organization called the Hellfire Club, run by the enigmatic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, who was in Sleepers with Robert DeNiro who was in Goodfellas with Ray Liotta who was in Narc with Dan Lies who was in Blood Guts Bullets & Octane with Michael Saumure who was in a community theatre production of The House of Blue Leaves with a young actor by the name of Jake Brooks). McTaggert witnesses the things Shaw’s associates can do: Janos Quested (Álex González) can create small tornadoes, Azazel (Jason Flemyng, from Vaughn’s previous Stardust and Kick-Ass) can teleport, and Emma Frost (January Jones from the also-60s-set Mad Men) can read minds and transform her body into diamond. McTaggert (who in the comics is a Scottish geneticist, NOT an American CIA agent) suddenly realizes she is out of her depth and seeks the help of a hip young expert on mutation back at Oxford…

Of course, once Xavier and McTaggert are on the same team they get to recruiting. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult from A Single Man and the U.K. version of Skins) is super-intelligent and has ape-like feet. Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz, the offspring of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz) has insect-like wings and can spit corrosive venom. Alex Summers (Lucas Till from Battle: Los Angeles) can shoot energy from his chest (it is never mentioned in the movie that he has a brother named Scott, who might be familiar to audiences). Armando Muñoz (Edi Gathegi from Gone Baby Gone and Crank) can adapt to survive under (almost) any conditions. Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones from The Last Exorcism) can scream. Loud. It’s cooler than it sounds. Jones talks kind of oddly during certain points in the movie and I haven’t the faintest clue whether he’s trying to do Cassidy’s trademark Irish brogue (if so, he’s failing) or he just talks weird normally.

The movie plays fast and loose with the already-shaky continuity established by the previous films. Emma Frost appeared in Wolverine played by Tahnya Tozzi as a teenager despite that film being set 17 years later. Also a more comic-faithful version of Moira McTaggert appeared in The Last Stand, played by Olivia Williams. There’s also the prequel of The Last Stand which shows Ian McKellen and a still-ambulatory Patrick Stewart working together, while this earlier-set film very much dramatizes their ideological split. While this does back up my earlier point about the films lacking the continuity of Marvel’s recent self-produced films, it doesn’t really harm the film. Taken on its own, the film is pretty damn good actually; it’s easily on the same level with X2. As with all prequels, the film “suffers” from the audience knowing how things will end up. We know who the heroes and the villains are. (Also, just as people living a delightfully radiation-free life, we can assume that the Cuban Missile Crisis does not end in full-scale nuclear war between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.) However, even knowing what we know the film manages to be a whole hell of a lot of fun. Plus with the aforementioned inconsistencies between films, First Class might throw a curve ball or two your way. There is a cameo from a familiar face delivering one Dick Cheney-esque line (tried to find a link, but somehow Dick Cheney saying “go fuck yourself” on the floor of the Senate does not appear to be on YouTube). The film also has very small parts for James Remar, Michael Ironside, and Jason Beghe, because apparently Vaughn is a big fan of gravely-voiced character actors. Eagle-eyed comic fans might recognize some familiar faces during the Cerebro scene. Hardcore geeks may take issue with some of the looser adaptations of characters from their comic book counterparts but overall the film keeps the spirits of the characters rather well. Also, don’t stay through the credits (unless you’re particularly curious who did the catering) as there is no post-credit scene, unlike previous Marvel and X-Men films. I still haven’t reversed my opinion that the X-Men franchise would be better off if the property reverted back to Marvel, but if Fox cranks out more movies like this one, I may have to reconsider. X-Men: First Class is awesome, for the casual movie-goer or for geeks like me.

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