By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
Review – X-Men: First Class (non-spoiler)
Matthew Vaughn has crafted a superhero movie, complete with all the computer effects, that is as revo/evo-lutionary as Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Nolan’s Batman films. Basically, he made a Bond film with good guys and bad guys alike who just happen to have super powers.
Is it as good or impactful as The Dark Knight? No. But it’s a very solid, completely watchable movie for people who are comic book geeks and for those who are not. Who knows whether anyone will get their granny and grandpa to go… but if they did, they would be entertained by this concoction.
In the broadest sense, there are three ways to look at a film like this. 1. Is it sensational or terrible? 2. Was it often flawed? 3. Does it break out beyond its niche?
1. The film is completely enjoyable and expertly delivered… easily Vaughn’s most skilled work as a director so far in a young directing career. But it is missing the kick of greatness. There are all kinds of pleasures offered. It’s a grudge film, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a Mad Lib of X-Men history. There are surprising and fearless choices. There’s great music, production design, and cinematography. The acting is good across the board, even January Jones, who shows yet again that she can’t act, but is well cast as a diamond-encrusted stiff whose leather panty lines and push up bra do most of the work for her. (Why do I feel like she’ll be out of the business by 2015 and writing a great book at 55, living in some Arizona mansion with her billionaire husband, about what it was to be so blonde in Hollywood?) Some of the effects stuff is done with combinations of “real” footage and CG that is clever and freeing and beautiful. There is a lot to like. If you have any interest at all, you are not likely to be disappointed.
So why isn’t it sensational? I think it’s the villain. All the best old Bond movies have the best villains, no? Here, the one element that doesn’t quite soar is the villain. He’s fine. But he’s not a world beater as a character. And we also know, having been in X-Men Land before, that he is espousing much of what Magneto will espouse in the future. That idea is fascinating, but there is no room for a serious discussion of this “why is one race-hater right and another one wrong… or is he?” as we fly through the action movie we’re watching. And so we don’t get a howler… the scenes and explanations work. They just lack the home run shot. Nolan was somewhat more successful with the issue of “who to save” in The Dark Knight, but there too, there just wasn’t quite enough room to do the discussion justice, no matter how beautifully presented. (My position on TDK has always been that it was either 45 minutes too long or 90 minutes too short… pretty much for this reason.)
2. I only noticed 3 things I would consider real flaws in X-Men: First Class. That’s very unusual in a movie with this much exposition and so many moving parts. The biggest problem goes back to the first issue, above… Kevin Bacon as The Villain. I love watching Kevin Bacon act. He does the part justice. But… you are always watching Kevin “Six Degrees Of” Bacon. When he first showed up, I actually gasp/laughed audibly. Here is a movie loaded with unknowns and relative unknowns and the bad guy is Kevin Bacon? Sorry. I don’t care if it was a completely emotional, “I love this guy” hire… it is a major mistake. It takes you out of the movie, in no small part because we know the guy’s moves. What we needed was Bardem in No Country For Old Men or Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Hugo Weaving in The Matrix. In other words, we needed much of what the casting in the rest of the film was doing. (One casting note: Was Jason Beghe appearing in the movie some kind of finger to Tom Cruise from Bryan Singer?)
The only place for Bacon to go was small and relatively subtle in this role. And again, he acquits himself well. But as the reflection of a dry Michael Fassbender, it didn’t quite work. Ironically, Ian McKellen would have been great in this role, adding just enough camp to make it work. Geoffrey Rush, though he’s a pirate this summer. Liev Schreiber would have been perfect if he wasn’t already Wolverine’s brother. Gabriel Byrne? Billy Crudup? Mark Rylance? Jared Harris? Guy Pearce would have been epic.
The other two issues were one truly horrible looking effects shot in the last big sequence, which is otherwise quite excellent and keeps building against expectation, and finally, a bit too little of the transition from teenagers to superheros for the kids… who all pay off beautifully in the third act.
3. I don’t know if this film breaks out beyond the niche. The niche has expanded… and much of this movie’s fun is what we bring to it… even the cheesy hair jokes. But anticipation of how Vaughn and the other screenwriters are going to get some of these characters where we know they are going is a part of the experience, which obviously non-X-fans cannot play along with. Still, I think the movie probably works quite well for those people, even without the history. They have made it about personal emotion. When a kid loses a parent or feels like an outsider or has body image issues, everyone can relate.
Take the superpowers out of the this film and you have a pretty good foundation for a Bond or Mission:Impossible. And that is a pretty revolutionary idea for the comic book niche. Most of the time, audiences are just waiting for the suit or the big effect. Here, you have that ensemble feel, but the powers actually give the characters a stronger definition. Mystique/Raven has so much story that has nothing to do with shape shifting that when she actually uses the power, it’s a bit of a surprise (even though we know she can do it) and a minor story point.
I really enjoyed this film. Nothing in it really has the simple, raw intensity of Hit Girl in Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Vaughn has been a little denuded here. He is great at filthy fun. But still, he shows that he has the chops. Look for the masterfully artful effects sequence early in the film and some of the great ways Vaughn has his characters manifest their powers. And while it makes you wonder how much better X-Men 3 could have been, it also makes you happy that he didn’t do an X-film until he had the opportunity to do it his way fully.