Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class - Movie Review

X-Men: First Class
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language
Filmmaking: 5 out of 5 stars
Moral Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Let me start by saying that not only is X-Men: First Class a good comic book movie, it is just a good movie! I had somewhat high expectations walking into this movie, and while the cast and premise seemed promising, it is still hard to put too much stock in a movie that Marvel launches in the same summer as THOR and Captain America: The First Avenger - their other prized material. I walked out of the theater pleasantly surprised and actually excited again about the X-Men franchise. Easily the best of the 5 movies in this series to date, First Class examines the character of the X-Men almost flawlessly and explores their strengths (and weaknesses) in a manner that is not simply an excuse for cruddy CG (cough *X-Men Origins: Wolverine* cough). 

James McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement, The Chronicles of Narnia) breathes life into the character of Charles Xavier, who when we first meet him is attempting to use his mind reading powers to pick up women at the local bar. Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, Immortals) steals the show by playing a young Erik Lensherr who has vowed to find and kill the man who murdered his mother in the Nazi concentration camps in his childhood. This villain, Sebastian Shaw, is portrayed here in a surprisingly good acting job by the often joked-about Kevin Bacon. The other show-out actor  here would easily be Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique - fleshing out the character that grows up to be the Mystique made famous by Rebecca Romijn.

The friendship and rift between Erik and Charles is the foundation of First Class and well depicted under the direction of director Matthew Vaughn. We actually feel the pain that Erik feels as he struggles to cope with his place in the world. We feel his struggle between rage and serenity, as does Charles. While Patrick Stewart is famous for his stalwart and noble take on the character, it is refreshing to see a heart and soul to the man who would become Professor X. As the standoff between Russia and the United States mounts, Charles steps up to lead a new band of mutants featuring Havok, Beast, Mystique, Banshee and Magneto to stop Sebastian Shaw and his own mutant team - Angel, Azazel, Emma Frost, and Riptide- from starting what would become World War 3. The X-Men are joined in this mission by government agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, "Bridesmaids"). I honestly hoped for more from Moira, but Rose Byrne did a fine job playing the agent. Nothing more, nothing less.

Where First Class truly excelled was in it's narrative and setting. Not only did Vaughn set his X-Men in the 1960's Cold War, but he revelled in it, setting his characters loose as children in a playground. From the fine set pieces, to the clever use of news footage to the delightfully groovy score by Henry Jackman - this film plays out more like a vintage spy movie or an early Bond film. Indeed Fassbender's Erik Lensherr is already receiving critical acclaim and comparisons to Bond in the first half hour of the movie. As he searches for Sebastian Shaw, one could indeed see him as a future Bond after Daniel Craig's run is through. I credit former  X-Men director and producer on this project Bryan Singer for much of the depth to this film. Never do I feel that a character was wasted. Never do I find myself not caring about their fate. This is a movie with depth. With a generous running time of over 2 hours we have plenty of time to become familiar with the characters and get to know their desires and insecurities.

I would like to make a brief side note about the moral content of First Class. While not as prominent or offensive as the X-Men Trilogy, there is some sexual content in this film. Several women are seen in underwear in one scene, and Emma Frost (January Jones) is more of a playboy bunny than a sidekick to Shaw, frequently flaunting extremely low-cut clothing and undergarments. One scene finds Frost using her mind control powers to trick a Soviet dignitary into believing he is actually with her. The scene ends before anything happens however. Mystique is clothed for the majority of the film, but there are a few moments where we awkwardly see her entire body in blue prosthetic make-up (which I am assuming is the 'partial nudity' the rating mentions). Language is mostly tame, although the F bomb does pop up once (as one of three words from a very special character cameo) and G--d---- is used once or twice. Violence is intense and emotionally exhausting, given the dark nature of the film, but never bloody. 

Conclusion: You will note that this review does not mention special effects or story too much. That is because the special effects are there to enhance the story, which is so well crafted that I don't want to give too much away. I see X-Men: First Class as more than a worthy successor to X-Men 1 and 2, and in fact would set it on a pedestal alongside Christopher Nolan's epics - Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Only time will tell if this film lives up to the acclaim of those, but one thing is certain - Captain America: The First Avenger has some mighty big shoes to fill when it arrives on July 22nd!

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