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Has X-Men become “First Class” once more?

January 31, 2012

I don’t usually like to include comic book heroes in sci-fi discussion, but the premise of a team of genetic mutants teaming up to save the world is undeniable. Nothing against these characters, I just don’t want “sci-fi” and “comic book” to become synonomous.

The X-Men cannon is among the most decorated comic book franchises of all time. On top of its storied comic book roots, X-Men has logged five major motion pictures and an immensely popular animated series to boot. What X-Men has accomplished is impressive considering that it emphasizes an ensemble of heroes rather than an individual.

X-Men: First Class is the fifth film entry in this catalogue and brings some new blood to the table. While, each previous film has delivered varying degrees of X-back story, First Class is the first to be set primarily in the early 1960s, 1962 to be exact, which is right around the time that X-Men was first realized in comic book form.

First Class profiles the formative period for the titular mutant squad, particularly the mythology of Charles and Eric’s relationship. The story plays out rather like a James Bond adventure, with international intrigue, sex appeal and a megalomaniacal villain with world domination in mind. The throwback style is a fresh and welcome change for a franchise which disappointed to varying degrees with its last two outings.

It’s all a lot of fun; the recruitment montage is a blast, and even has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Wolverine; new mutants are introduced, and some loving attention is paid to the origins of Xavier, Mystique and Beast.

The story is not without flawls, however. While the movie generally maintains a breezy pace, there are moments that just don’t seem all that well thought out. For example, bringing Darwin into the story seemed like a joke. The joke was on actor Edi Gathegi, as he was written out of the story as suddenly as he was brought in. It’s difficult to say whether this is a wasted opportunity or an unnecessary indulgence.

Also, and heartbreakingly, the film dabbles in clumsy exposition several times. The inevitable scene in which the characters came up with their mutant names (Mystique, Magneto, etc.) was delivered so ham-fistedly, the film would have been better served on the cutting room floor. While that scene was wince-inducing, it wasn’t even as bad as, “I can’t feel my legs!” This line is so outrageously unnecessary and redundant that is actually a little insulting for X-Men fans. And it isn’t even necessary for the uninitiated, as it is all covered mere minutes later in a subsequent scene.

The line, “I can’t feel my legs!” is so silly, it evokes the infinitely laughable shot of Darth Vader yelling, “NOOOOO!” at the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

These issues are blatant yet fleeting and on the whole, the film does not crumble under their weight. They just seem to leave the film in a Chris Berman-esque, “yeah but…” situation. Taken as a whole, flaws and all, the movie does plenty of things really well and is sure entertain all but the most curmudgeonly of viewers.

Naturally, this early X-Men story demands fresh-faced mutants to populate it. One of First Class’ greatest strengths is its cast. James McAvoy (Professor Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) are particularly memorable.

While Fassbender as Magento was practically a sure thing, the biggest treat of First Class is experiencing the hip, fully-functioning and fully-follicled version Charles Xavier. It is simultaneously shocking and awesome to see McAvoy in the role as opposed to the bald and wheelchair-ridden version played by Patrick Stewart.  This is not to say McAvoy bested the dignified performance of Stewart, but the two complement each other very well a la the combination of performances by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro that rounded out the character of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. The performance was good enough that I can even let all that temple-massaging slide.

The rest of the cast is generally delightful. Kevin Bacon lays on the charm and smarm as Sebastian Shaw, more or less an evil version of Kevin Bacon.

Fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence dons the blue body paint as Mystique. She gives a compelling performance as the younger, emotionally vulnerable Mystique, still hesitant to be seen in her true skin. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating departure from the vixen portrayed by Rebecca Romijn in the earlier films.

Nicholas Hoult gives a memorable performance as Beast and would be greatly benefitted by a sequel. Caleb Landry-Jones and Lucas Till round out Xavier’s X-Men as Banshee and Havok but aren’t given a whole lot to do. The same could be said for Rose Byrne’s non-mutant Moira MacTaggert. Again, a sequel for the further development of their characters would be welcome.

Also in the “underutilized” category is Jason Flemyng, as Azazel. Flemyng really needs more roles. He never fails to leave an impression despite his meatiest performances being in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (a classic no one ever seems to talk about) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Considering the man’s talents, this is downright criminal. Fans will surely note similarities between Azazel, and Nightcrawler, the tormented teleporter from X2. Nightcrawler was played brilliantly by Alan Cumming, previously of Goldeneye fame, and was the coolest thing in the already-very-cool X2. Felmyng’s Azazel could have been just as awesome; unfortunately he was a fringe character and just wasn’t given much responsibility.

While the above performances have ranged from adequate to splendid, there is a weak link who does her best to suck the energy from First Class. An apparently bored January Jones plays the telepathic Emma Frost. I did not enjoy this performance, which was unfortunate, because she has been so good in Mad Men. Maybe Jones is a perfect fit for the unstable and childish Betty Draper the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger was a perfect fit for the sparsely-written roles he landed early in his career thanks to his imposing body (see Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator).

I so desperately wanted First Class to set a new standard for the series, and the way director Matthew Vaughn trash-talked X3, I was very excited. As it turns out, First Class doesn’t do that, but that’s OK because X2 is more than good enough to remain the standard-bearer. There are a few gaffes that hold First Class a little short of being a bona fide genre classic, but then again, not every movie can be a revolution.

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