Sunday, June 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class - Theatrical Review


Release Date: June 3, 2011

We have officially crossed over to a whole new era of super hero movies. It is now the time when movie studios try to go back and erase their past mistakes by rebooting all the franchises they screwed up. X-Men First Class is just the tip of the iceberg with many to follow and as long as the other reboots turn out as good as this one then I will be just fine with it.

Review Vital Stats: 
Theater: AMC Glendora 12 
Time: 11:00 am June 3, 2011 
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: Matthew Vaughn, Rose Byrne 
Likes: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, X-Men 1 & 2 
Neutral: Reboots 
Hates: X-Men 3, Wolverine (the movie) 
Fact: Matthew Vaughn was originally approached to direct X-Men 3 but declined

Am I the only one sick and tired of movie studios mucking up a franchise? The first two X-Men movies (especially the second one) were on course to not only become a cash cow for Fox but also a legitimately great film series as well. Like most businesses though they let their greed get in the way of better judgement  and instead of waiting for a proper script and director they went ahead and destroyed all the good will built up by the first two films. As a matter of fact the amount of slack general audiences cut that travesty known as X-3 when it was released took a good year to fade away until they finally saw it for the garbage it was ( I remember having numerous conversations with so called fans that actually defended it upon its release), and the less said about the spin-off Wolverine the better. So, with the original director and writer (Bryan Singer) for the first two X-Men movies supplying a new and improved story as well as the maestro that gave us last years comic book revelation Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn) in the director's seat, did the studio that seems to turn everything it touches into shit actually make good on the promises made almost a decade ago with a clean slate in the form of X-Men: First Class?

It is 1944, we witness two children on different sides of the world and how their lives at that point in time will forever be changed based on their own personal experiences. Those two children are of course are Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who will become two of the most powerful mutants in the world as well as arch enemies in the forthcoming war between human and mutant. We then jump forward roughly twenty years to find that Charles, along with his close childhood friend Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawerence), is finishing up his studies as Erik is on a revenge seeking tour of the world for those that were responsible for his mothers death. The two of them are strangers to one another until the day arrives where their destinies collide while searching for Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a man that mysteriously never ages and has some devious plans set for the world, brings them together. Finding that they have common interests they decide to work together along with the CIA to stop whatever Shaw is planning and in order to do so they must form a team that is able to do the job. This team is none other than the legendary X-Men and this is the story of how they came to be.

Erik and Charles look on as they begin their hunt for Shaw.

Reboots are a tricky thing, on one side of the coin you get a fresh start and all past mistakes are wiped clean (but not forgotten). But on the other side there is and always will be those of us that wished a reboot wasn't necessary at all, especially if the first go around got so much right. With this being the first of a huge wave of reboots to come I was skeptical going in on how I would react to it. I don't like to have my emotions played with and that is exactly what it felt like 20th Century Fox and Marvel were doing. But at least they went back to the drawing board for this reboot and excised the whole Wolverine aspect of the story, which was quite frankly boring after the second film concluded, and instead put their focus on the core group of the X-Men themselves.

Yes, you read that right. I am not a huge fan of the character Wolverine, I understand why he has such a huge fan base but he just never really did anything for me. I have always been more a fan of the X-Men as a whole, with their diverse backgrounds and powers it just seemed as though there was so much untapped potential there (in the film versions that is). Well, First Class has finally given me the X-Men I wanted and it almost feels as though this is where Bryan Singer's film should have started in the first place. As opposed to the whole Wolverine story of memory loss and revenge, here we get the intricately more interesting story of good versus not entirely good which becomes the genesis of an endless tug of war between the two men who created the X-Men.

Shaw likes his women sparkly...and telepathic.

With this being the story of how the X-Men was formed though it should come as no surprise that much of the film deals with the recruiting and training of said mutants. Expect to see a recruitment montage shortly followed by a series of training montages. But before we can get to the origins of the X-Men we have to deal with the origins of the two men who started it all. It almost feels as though the film is a juggling act with how it bounces back and forth between Charles and his school studies, Erik and his quest for revenge and Moira MacTaggaert (Rose Byrne) of the CIA who is the catalyst for how the X-Men come to be. The single thread that ties all these characters together is Shaw who is played to slimy perfection by Kevin Bacon. His past atrocities as well as his current and future ones are what brings all our principal characters together with his plan for world domination.

His scheme for how he is going to accomplish this isn't going to win any awards for originality (although it is leagues better than Magneto's idea in the first film) but it does serve the purpose of bringing the mutants into the public eye quite nicely and I gotta admit I love the 60's setting as the backdrop to all the events we are witness to. There is just something really cool about seeing mutants use all their crazy powers in a time when there weren't even computers yet. Honestly though, how could anyone complain with a setting that has Rose Byrne parading around a night club wearing nothing but a bra and panties?

Meet the First Class of X-Men.

As you may or may not have been able to tell by now, there is a lot of stuff going on in First Class. The friendship between Charles and Erik, the formation of the X-Men which encompasses the gathering of hidden mutants (at this point they are still hidden in a society that knows nothing about them) as well as each and every character's side stories. It is kind of a miracle that all these different webs of character interaction and motivation came together in such a comprehensive way. For example, you have Charles who has this deep friendship with Mystique at the beginning but later his attention is also drawn towards both Erik and Moira as well as trying to hunt down Shaw. Then each of those characters have their own character moments ranging from mild (the relationship between Mystique and Beast) to major (Charles helping Erik harness his power beyond his use of rage).

I guess the film is an origin story filled with countless other origin stories within but I'd be damned if this isn't one of the best told origin stories to ever come along. There wasn't one moment where I wasn't completely enthralled by what I was seeing at any given time. Having only been acquainted with this series through either film or interactive media (video games) I had been at a loss as to how this whole organization came about. You finally get to see why and how two best friends became mortal enemies as well as where the hell the name X-Men originated from. If you loved the first two X-Men films but felt a little lost when it came to the mythology behind the revered group of super heroes then you will find a lot to like here and perhaps even help you appreciate those earlier films even more.

Lap about a flutter dance?

Speaking of those earlier films, not all is perfect in this classroom unfortunately as there seem to be a few holdovers from last term. I have already mentioned my feelings on reboots but I neglected to bring up my feelings on how a reboot should treat the films that came before it. And the reason for that is because until this film I had no reason to even think about such a thing (although the Star Trek reboot did a fine job at integrating the old with the new). Now after seeing First Class I can safely say that any reboot to a franchise can pay homage to the original but for the love of god don't make any direct references to those films. There are not one, not two, but three by my count, scenes and/or actors that make cameo appearances here that bring up memories that would be better left forgotten.

I won't ruin the cameos for anyone out there that may actually like their inclusion but I have to bring up the opening scene of the film. It is in fact a direct lift from the first X-Men film, not a recreated scene mind you but THE EXACT SAME SCENE in the exact same place and used in the exact same manner. I remember loving that scene in the first film due to how unexpected and powerful it was but its use here did not have the same effect on me. While a case can be made that the scenes placement in this film makes more sense given the narrative I still take issue with the filmmakers not doing something different and putting their own spin on the character depicted in it. Probably the most troublesome thing about it though is that it gives me pause as to what exactly the filmmakers and studio are trying to accomplish with this reboot. Is it a fresh start or is it supposed to be related to those other films that came before it? I hope to god it is the former.

We are getting ever so close to spandex.

The only other aspect of the film that I didn't find to be very captivating were some of the super heroes/villains chosen for this first outing. The main characters such as Professor X, Magneto, Mystique and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) were handled well and had some good moments but others such as Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) and Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) just didn't do anything for me. They weren't as bad though as Angel (Zoe Kravitz) who has one of the worse cases of flip flopping I have seen since the last presidential election. At least the mutants that hang around Shaw had some flair to them with Emma Frost (January Jones) being the standout in that group. But none of these newbies can hold a candle to the likes of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm or Night Crawler. I just never got excited when Banshee did his vocal tricks or Havok played with his glowing hula hoops like I did with those original characters.

None of that really matters though, the winks at the audience and the new cast of characters weren't really the focus this go around. All eyes are on Charles and Erik which both Singer and Vaughn handled beautifully. I loved how we get to see Charles be carefree and using his powers to hit on women as a young college student and how that clashes with all the scenes of Erik's relentless killing streak. The journey these two men take together is a heartbreaking tale of loss and villainy as we see that they both are quickly becoming friends and share many points of view on a vast number of subjects. But we know their relationship is doomed from minute one, not because we have seen the outcome in the previous films but because of the individual journeys each has taken to get to this point in their lives. Charles has lived in the lap of luxury his whole life and able to hide his mutation from anyone that would try to exploit him which leaves him with an understanding and kindness towards humans. While Erik had to endure countless moments of torment and torture at the hands of the worst human beings to ever walk the Earth which leads him down a path of thinking where there can never be a world where both human and mutant may coexist.

Three guesses on who eventually wears this.

Amongst the bigger picture of how the X-Men came to be are all these smaller more intimate moments between the two men. You can see that Charles knows that Erik is heading towards a dangerous path but it doesn't stop him from trying everything he can to save his new found friend and colleague. I absolutely loved the scene where Charles enters Erik's mind to help him find a memory he can use to channel his powers in a completely different way than he had been taught. It was probably the most emotional scene in the entire film and was the moment when Charles truly understood Erik's torment. Accolades must go out to the actors as well, both McAvoy and Fassbender did fantastic jobs portraying these two iconic characters and somehow made the impossible happen where I now picture them instead of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the roles.

All the other performances were adequate to good but mostly good. Jennifer Lawrence brought a sadness to Mystique that I had never seen before and I adored all the early scenes between her and McAvoy. I had no problem believing the two of them had been close friends for years and the ways their friendship is tested over the course of the film was one of the better subplots introduced. As mentioned before, all the new X-Men seemed pretty blah to me which probably had a lot to do with the blandness of the actors chosen. And it pains me to even admit it but my cinematic sweetheart Rose Byrne seemed to be phoning it in most of the time as well. The villains certainly had more going on but beyond Shaw and Emma Frost the other two henchmen Azazel (Jason Flemyng) who has one of the best scenes in the film actually and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) who never speaks a word, are pretty much just there most of the time and uninteresting besides when their powers are used.

The team is put through the ringer quite a few times.

I know I sound like I disliked the film but honestly I liked it quite a bit. Maybe not as much as I thought I did directly after watching it but I still think it is one of the better super hero films out there and a great restart to a series that needed one. The action is done well and the story of two friends turned enemies it tells is one of the best and most thoughtful I have ever seen in a super hero movie. Anyone looking for a fun and entertaining time at the movies is sure to come away from this pleased and for anyone that got burned by the last X-Men movie, like myself, will have a new found love for the series again. There is quite a lot to like here and appreciate and it makes me hopeful that it doesn't go down the road of awfulness its predecessor did. I have to say that you...




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