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David Poland

By David Poland

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.

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23 Responses to “Review – X-Men: First Class (non-spoiler)”

  1. LexG says:

    This was a fun review… Huge January Jones fan, but had to laugh at the accuracy of JJ at 55. No mention of Lawrence?

    No matter how big these movies are or how devout their fans, everything about X-Men seems SO low-rent to me. Spiderman, Superman, Batman, so iconic and singular and epic; X-Men is like a dozen hamming B-listers in tacky costumes running around that shitty Fox Vancouver Forest they always use. Big “action scenes” that consist of like Magneto LIFTING A BRIDGE, or cars racing down some rain-soaked overcast road in the middle of nowhere instead of the Big City.

    And they all live in the same BOARDING HOUSE.

  2. Krillian says:

    X-Men’s going to be huge. Everyone’s going to say it was better than Last Stand or Wolverine, it’s got the weekend to itself…

    This is Rose Byrne’s summer.

    Funny you say the villain is one of the only problems. I felt the same way about Star Trek.

  3. matt says:

    Thanks for the review- just two points that come to mind upon reading

    1) I’d argue Stardust is a very skilled work by Vaughn and surpasses The Princess Bride in quality- as he, an action director primarily, makes the fantasy film mysterious, funny, scary, exciting, and unique in all the ways it should be, with a great set piece at the end too, and I’m most interested in seeing First Class to see if he can carry that same adaptability to the superhero film

    2) If you’re arguing Kevin Bacon’s character should be an unknown… how would having Ian McKellen play the part be any better? Wouldn’t he not only be recognizable, but confusing to people expecting him to be Magneto?

  4. Lisa says:

    Matt, my sense is he means either Kevin Bacon’s character should either be a unknown or someone big enough to make it epic.

  5. KMS says:

    WHEN THE HELL DOES TREE OF LIFE OPEN?! I’ve thought for ages it opened wide today! It’s not even playing anywhere near me! How many screens is it on now? WHEN IS IT GOING WIDE? GODF*CKInG D**MIT! I”VE BEEN WAITING 4 F*QING YEARS FOR THIS AND I REFUSE TO WAIT ANOTHER G*&DAMN MONTH.

  6. JS Partisan says:

    The Hellfire Club are some of the major baddies in the X-Men universe, so having Kevin Bacon as the face of the Hellfire club is pretty freaking awesome.

  7. Am looking forward to this on Tuesday, so thanks for making it non-spoiler. Ironically, I actually AM taking my 60-something father-in-law to the screening, so we’ll see how it plays for him. Glad to hear it works as a spy movie first and a comic book film second. That was what made the Nolan films stand above the crowd: they were real crime dramas first, comic book adaptations second. The only way the comic book adaptation is going to survive (if it should) if it finds a way to split off into different genres. While I did enjoy Thor overall, it blew its chance to truly be a full-fledged fantasy epic that happened to be based on a comic book, going instead for the cheaper Masters of the Universe route. Did Marvel let Joe Johnson make a genuine World War II adventure that happens to star a costumed soldier? We’ll find out soon enough. The reason the Kung Fu Panda films work as well as they do is that they aren’t ‘animated films’. They are kung fu/action-dramas that happen to be animated. Same thing with The Incredibles: it’s a family-friendly riff on the themes from Watchmen and Unbreakable that happens to be computer-animated. Going forward, the comic book adventures that will arguably work the best are the ones that are ‘(insert genre here) that happen to be based on a comic book’.

  8. Monco says:

    KMS, I totally agree with you. I could have sworn they were going to open it wide today but alas it’s only opening in new york and la. Utter bullshit, I’m so sick of these slow rollouts. It’s not opening wide until July. At least it’s coming to Cleveland on June 10. The theater alreday has a sign announcing that if you want to see it you should buy the tickets now. It’s amazing to me that utter shit like Pirates 4 and the hangover 2 have more than enough room but actually good movies have to make people fight and wait to get tickets. I firmly support the theatrical experience but I think day and date VOD should become standard for films like The Beaver and Meek’s Cutoff. That still doesn’t solve The Tree of Life problem because what cinephile would choose to watch Malick first on anything but the big screen. Just release the fucking movie already.

  9. arisp says:

    Mystique was never a member of the Xmen. And she didn’t exist in the 60s. Why would Vaughn make shit up like that?

  10. JS Partisan says:

    Yeah she’s old and she may have been a part of the FIRST CLASS comic. There have also been stories about Mystique being a member of the X-men. She has joined them several times. It’s not making shit up if it existed at some point in the comics.

  11. Martin S says:

    Continuity and accuracy has no relation to the X movies. This is what happens when you have no long-term

    Re: Bacon villain. I always felt it was an Ian McShane role.

    Lex, X films always feel low-rent because the costumes were shitty designs from the start. Now, they’re shitty and dated. Look at the color designs currently – iron man, Thor, Green lantern, Cap, – other than batman, black is very 90’s. Muted colors was actually a major detraction for Singer’s Superman. He finds it gaudy and unrealistic. First Class could have really benefitted from the change, which is kind if ironic considering that was also an issue with the original character designs in the 60’s.

  12. Tim DeGroot says:

    The uniforms in First Class are yellow and blue, not black.
    Wasn’t that the same color combo of the original 60’s designs?

  13. Geoff says:

    Rainy morning in Chicago and I’m watching Batman Begins on BluRay – Nolan has gotten tons of praise already, but you really can’t discount what he pulled off with these Batman movies. Really perfect mix of the epic, fantastical, and grounded – sometimes weighed down by on-the-nose dialogue, but still. What he did with these movies really hasn’t been approached by any other superhero franchise and that’s probably an issue with X Men:

    Whatever tools Vaughn brought to the table, he was still playing with the universe that was created 10 years ago and let’s face it, Singer did some things right, but it did feel like a lower rent universe with some drawn-out themes about feeling “out of place” and persecuted again and again. I really want to see First Class and bringing it back to the ’60’s and making it more Bondian just sounds like a perfect approach…..but I’m guessing he’s still hampered a bit by constraints for the franchise laid out by Fox and (let’s not forget, but hey she’s kept it going THIS long) Shuler-Donner.

    I mean, didn’t the Batman franchise just break away from Guber/Peters (and their wacky ideas about gay robots) after ’97? That might have been a HUGE reason that the ‘Begins was a true reboot.

    Dying to see First Class and just love the casting – Lex, you can rant about Fassbender all you want, but the dude looks completely bad-ass for the Magneto role and McAvoy seems ideal for younger, idealistic, but just slightly less earnest Dr. X. By the way, I have heard about so many other cast members, but how WAS McAvoy?

    And yeah, 20 years from now, we’re going to look back on this phase of comic book epics and JUST like the Star Wars and most other mega-franchises at their finest….we’re going to come to a realization: ALL of these films had seeds planted for them by the James Bond movies of the ’60’s. No kidding, watch The Incredibles, Batman Begins (Morgan Freeman’s character makes that movie as much as anything), Indiana Jones (Spielberg has even admitted he went that route when he wasn’t allowed to direct a Bond movie), Jack Ryan movies, the whole Star Wars sequence skulking around the inside of the Death Star, gadgets, music cues heavy with horns, plots to initiate a world war, fantastical villian sets, etc…… ALL comes back to Bond! Hard to tell whether Albert Broccoli or Ian Fleming deserve more credit, but I’m sure their estates aren’t hurting…..

  14. NickF says:

    Stardust needs more love. Vaughn made Claire Danes adorable for the firat time since maybe Romeo + Juliet. It rivals The Princess Bride in characterand story and features a great turn by Bobby D.

    It was wondefrful to finally see this earlier this year in anticipation of First Class. Vaughn hasn’t made a bad movie yet and this X-Men flick has his writer Jane Goldman and and all the right piecea elsewhere.

  15. Joe Leydon says:

    It’s times like this when I bemoan the demise of revival houses. I bet First Class would make a great double bill with Thirteen Days.

  16. Jason says:

    I’m glad this movie turned out good. I have a hard time believing this movie will earn as much as the other X-men movies. I think the prequels are going to have a tough time (as wolverine already demonstrated). Especially with a loaded superhero summer, I could see X-men falling behind.

  17. mary says:

    Matthew Vaughn was actually thinking of either Colin Firth or Kevin Bacon to play the villain. But Fox chose Kevin Bacon.

    It is sad; Colin Firth would be the greatest choice!

  18. NickF says:

    I rather watch Bacon having fun than Firth. There’s isn’t enough of this guy anymore.

  19. Carmen576 says:

    Some scenes seem to be missing here obviously. How can a movie have so much mention of Cuba and no Cuban characters. Were they afraid of the politics or what? The training scenes were way too long. Something else must have been left out for much other drawn out scenes. Just not credible. Don’t even bother to see the movie, save your money, it’s not worth it, nothing like the other X-Men movies, terrible editing job anyway. This movie is going nowhere. The bad PR will surely go viral from day one.

  20. leahnz says:

    i beg to differ

  21. emurei says:

    @Carmen576 Because the Cuban Missile Crisis was a stand off between the US and USSR. The only thing Cuba did was allowing the USSR to send them some missiles. The only Cubans they could add is the ones running a way from the beach. As far as training scenes, I think they are rather too short. I would like to see them develop some of the supporting cast out a bit more, but then again they’re just that, supporting cast. So yes, this is nothing like the other 4 X-Men movies, this is (unfortunately) better.

    Unfortunately? Only because I prefer the X-Men production rights be back into the hands of Marvel instead of Fox. But I’m not going to knock on this movie, too well done, despite not following first class cannon. But hey, its Hollywood. The Fassbender and McAvoy team is absolutely fantastic to watch. I didn’t like how Emma Frost was portrayed. She’s suppose to be an I
    intelligent, well educated, seductive, bombshell of a White Queen. While the seductive bombshell part is nailed in this movie, the intelligent, well educated part was replaced with the stereo typical ditsy blonde. That was the only big problem I had with the movie. Overall a very enjoyable movie.

  22. Nelson says:

    This movie was terrible. Nothing to do with the comics and the acting was horrendous. Also how in the hell do you justify crippling professor X buy a deflected bullet? He was crippled by lucifer in the comics not some random bullet. In my opinion if your going to make a comic book movie to please the “geeks” try doing it right.

  23. Ed says:

    Nelson you tool, do you get satisfaction from writing a huge SPOILER in the comments section of a non spoiler review?

    The acting is great for the most part and mcavoy and fassbender are great to watch. Their relationship onscreen will only get better if the next x-men film is just as good.

    And i was really happy to see Bacon in this film and I had a similar reaction as the reviewer and do take the points presented as valid because it does take you out of the film slightly when you have him in the movie to more resident ‘no names’.

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