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Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Rating: ★★★

Even superheroes get ice cream headaches. 

It takes a certain kind of superhero film to get me going. They either have to be extremely operatic (consider X2: X-Men United) or grounded in gritty realism (The Dark Knight, anyone?). Thankfully, X-Men: First Class, dubbed by Richard Roeper as a "pre-boot" (you know, like "prequel and reboot"), found a way to be both without feeling contrived. The first two films, helmed by Bryan Singer, found that balance easily. Then Brett Ratner took over the franchise and made X-Men: The Last Stand completely cartoonish and unbearable. Then, Wolverine took a step closer to the realism that was required, but... well, managed to screw that up, too. Matthew Vaughn, who directed Kick-Ass last year, brings it back to good and manages to capture Bryan Singer's impeccable tone with his entry. It's funny, it's dark, parts of it are incredibly sad, and it's exciting. 

More after the cut--

Of course, I couldn't be more thrilled that The Last Stand wasn't the actual last stand, but a "The Final Friday" type of titular mistake. And I feared that all we'd be left with was origin films after the trilogy hit a grinding dead stop. I'll be the first to say I do enjoy the Wolverine origin movie, but, it's no where close to the greatness it could have achieved. And the problem with that film was that it left no room to guess what happened. We knew that Wolverine would lose his memory, and that's what the film showed his. His surgery that gave him the claws, and him losing his memory. And doing some other stuff along the way. There was no sense of urgency, just a sense of watching someone get their life taken away. That makes for some good movies, no doubt, but... not with the childish way they presented it. Make no mistake. X-Men: First Class is an origin movie, but a different kind. We learn the back stories of Magneto and Professor X, and we get introduced to same character we'll come to know and love after the film takes place. 

The film opens with the scene the that the first X-Men did. Young Erik Lehnsherr is watching his mother be dragged away from him by Nazi soldiers in a concentration camp. It's 1944. Out of anger, reaching for his mother and screaming, he finds out he can bend metal as he watches the giant barbed wire fence move at his will. Where the film truly starts is what happens after that, when we meet Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, deliriously evil, and so calm). He wants Erik to use his powers to move a coin, or he'll kill his mother in front of him. Meanwhile, in England, young Charles Xavier displays an ability he's already so used to -reading the mind of a little girl, Raven, who enters his home to steal food. A friendship is sparked. Charles and Raven grow up together as brother and adoptive sister and he becomes a professor of genetic mutation studies. Erik grows up bitter, and hunting for Shaw. 

The adult Charles (James McAvoy) is recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to track down Shaw and uncover a plan by the Russians to bomb the United States. It's now 1961, and that's the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Charles, Moira, Raven, and a couple other men track down Shaw and attempt to capture him, they meet Erik (Michael Fassbender) and recruit him as well. The duo decide to fight back, get Shaw, and stop the impending nuclear war, and to recruit additional young mutants to fight with them. Here, Raven becomes Mystic, a young scientist working for the CIA named Hank McCoy (Nicolas Hoult) becomes Beast, and more supporting characters are revealed. As well as a sharply funny cameo that, if you blink, you'll miss. The origin part of the tale is now complete. Now we can get on with our movie. 

We know going into the film that Erik and Charles later become enemies. Arch enemies, really. And that Charles is somehow paralyzed (we've been exposed to his wheel chair in these films since 2000). The thing that sets this film apart from Wolverine in that aspect, is that the action is so involving, that's the last thing on our mind. It's never about how Charles becomes paralyzed, or how Erik becomes evil. It's about the mission they're on, and the unbreakable bond that forms between the two men. That's how you tell an origin story. Everything else is a part of the story, but not the point of the story. 

One thing I've always appreciated about the tone of the well-made X-Men films, and generally the X-Men franchise, is the theme of wanting acceptance. These films came along at a time when that meant a lot to kids who were growing up different and needed to know they weren't alone. Children struggling with birth defects, teenagers struggling with homosexuality, the films have always, at base, been about accepting who you are and using that to make the world better. And safer, for others who are like you. Of course, sometimes the message comes on a bit to thick ("mutant and proud"? really?), but the heart is what's most important here. It's hard enough for a kid to be social and make friends. But, it's even harder for some children to know that they aren't alone in the world, and that there are others experiencing the same problems, but... most importantly, their differences are what make them so special. And those differences should be embraced and never hidden. 

The performances in the film are uniformly wonderful, though with a cast headed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, that should have been no surprise. Michael Fassbender brings a secret-agent cool to Magneto's earlier scenes, but displays enough wisdom-cum-rage to keep the character out of the traditional "comic book" realm. His Erik Lehnsherr is very real, and at times, very frightening. McAvoy, who has proven himself one of the most reliable actors available today, gives Professor X a unique charming, playboy attitude that we might not have gotten from anyone else. Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar nominated for last year's Winter's Bone, shows great emotional strength as Mystique, but her make-up (head to toe blue) leaves much to be desired and made it hard for me to completely connect with the character. Same for Nicolas Hoult as Beast - the make-up didn't cut it. It felt very thrown together. Emma Frost, the woman who can turn into diamond-hard ice, is played by January Jones, and is the weakest link in a very strong chain. Her delivery is almost as icy as her character's power. Alarmingly dull work. 

A special note about the cast - keep an eye on the young redhead playing a mutant named Banchee. His name is Caleb Landry Jones, and he's an incredible actor. If you haven't seen last year's The Last Exorcism, his performance is the stand-out of the film: he's an actor with a deceivingly calm exterior, but is a bundle of energy and passion for his craft. It's amazing the impact that he can leave with only a few lines. I expect big things from him. 

X-Men: First Class is a "pre-boot", to use the term coined by Roeper. But, more than that, it's an excellent film from a gifted director. Matthew Vaughn brings the pitch-perfect tone to the film, keeping its drama from being so heavy handed that it becomes funny, and making the humor of the film subtle and quickly paced. It's everything I loved about Kick-Ass, it's everything I love about the first two X-Men films, and it's everything I hoped for. I can only hope that this spawns a new interest in the series, and we get another one very soon.