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Review: X-Men First Class

Professor R.Hello. My Name is Professor R* and my area of study is the cinema.

I come to you in peace but it's time to reveal the shocking truth. A new mutation has developed in the storytelling arts. Second and third acts, those middles and endings moviegoers like you and I have known since birth, will soon be extinct. A new more lucrative mutation has developed among storytellers: the eternal beginning.

This looping trait -- sometimes cutely referred to as "rebooting" and other times clearly marked as "2" -- is a matter of evolution. As television has come to dominate pop culture the movies have transformed into gigantic hybrids, attempting to master television's most powerful assett (long form storytelling) without having the right equipment by which to master it (weekly hour-long episodes). It's survival of the fittest and greediest. The largest films now only deliver endings when absolutely cornered (and charge double for the rare privilege of "finality" Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) and now frequent in eternal beginnings (see also: The Avengers prequels, all "reboots" and 'hey, that's the same movie in a new locale!' sequels).

Such is the case with X-Men First Class (2010) which begins as an exact replica of X-Men (2000) in Nazi occupied Poland when young Magneto's (aka Erik Lehnsherr) mutant abilities first manifest. He is ripped from his parent's arms and returns the favor by tearing up the steely barb wired gates. After that eerily familiar opening, fleshed out with some psychological torture by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) we travel cross the ocean to New York for a "meet cute" with two other Mutant Babies, wee telepath Charles and wee shapeshifter Mystique in the vast Xavier mansion in Westchester -- I don't recall the telepath and the shapeshifter knowing each other so intimately in the previous X-films but, sorry, "reboot". Proceed, movie, proceed.

The New Mutants: Beast, Banshee, Angel, Mystique, Havok, and Darwin. 50/50 Success Rate.

With four character intros and two locales behind us we leap forward some two decades and continue criss-crossing the Globe: Switzerland, Nevada, Argentina, DC, Russia; With virtually every new locale we get new characters and plotlines.  "This season on X-Men!..."

Though the film moves efficiently through its locales and characters, it only ever lands with impactful force while chasing Magneto who is himself chasing his childhood enemies. This potency comes largely from two things. First, it's the cleanest and most direct narrative in the movie. Second, it's the narrative that stars the great Michael Fassbender who has screen presence in spades and emotional acuity to die for. (The early Nazi showdown in Argentina, a tense multi-lingual drink at a table that erupts into violence: this is a corrective homage to Inglourious Basterds, yes?, with Fassy allowed to live and triumph.) Fassbender has been boldly claiming himself The Most Important New Screen Star in The World onscreen for at least three years now (speaking of eternal beginnings) but now that he's in a blockbuster, the world will finally realize he's already claimed it. Well done.

Even this Nazi hunt showdown in Argentina, thrilling as it is, is more prologue than triumph or resolution. The plot is acrobatic to say the least but the only acrobats that stick their landings are Fassbender and McAvoy. 

"Your work is puerile and under-dramatized. You lack any sense of structure, character and the Aristotelian unities."
-Wednesday Addams [Addams Family Values]

One may be forgiven for wondering if the movie will ever start, well into its running time. There are so many beginnings within this overarching First Class BEGINNING! that even after the elaborate Hellfire Club threat is established, you still have to stop the movie to introduce government officials and a handful of new mutants who are to become the first students at Xavier's school. Their training, which should make for excellent B plots in season 1 episodes, is reduced to jokey split screen mayhem.

The movie's lazy tone deafness about familiar X-Men themes: persecution, diversity, self-loathing versus pride leads to uncomfortable moments. As a friend remarked to me, post screening, but do we really need an intense close up on the one black character the second somebody uses the word "enslaved"? And the continuing dialogue refrain of "Mutant and Proud" which should be relatable and even cathartic, given that the X-Men have always been excellent stand-ins for oppressed minorities, comes across as silly.

January/Emma. As cold as ice. As hard as diamonds.

To be fair to the movie, some of the eye candy works: James McAvoy's blue eyes are worth a thousand CGI effects, January Jones is a visual treat in human form and the actresses inner ice is an amusing counterpart to Emma Frost's outer mutation; Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) a character one could fairly expect to be a failure when transferred to screen works tremendously well (loved that underwater bit). Many of the other characters, though, are duds. Havok (Lucas Till), for instance, is lacking the unique visual identity that made him tick in the comic books (and why mess with chronology mythology to include him. Is Scott Summers younger brother suddenly his father or something?) But if I'm accusing the movies of being unable to end, I should wrap up myself.

Banshee's sonic wave

The Cuban Missile Crisis finale to this beginning chapter is enjoyably chaotic rather than incoherent (which is more the norm lately as action sequences go), with the few separate action threads braiding together well. But even First Class's satisfyingly staged final battle and the subsequent team-splitting coda is mere prologue. If this were a television pilot, I'd be DVR'in the shit out of it but it's a movie. And as a movie, it's frustratingly hit and miss and lacking a big payoff.

"Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint."
-Scott Rudin [The Day the Movies Died]

This storytelling mutation is so cruel.

Keep that carrot dangling, but never give away its precious nutrients. The audiences may, for a price, enjoy its vibrant color from afar. When your hungry audiences grow weary of merely staring at said carrot, DO NOT offer it to them. Instead, remove the carrot entirely. They'll find sustenance elsewhere, and a few years later you may begin dangling the same carrot again once they've rebought their ticket.

Beginnings are the easy part. Bet on them! Sharp character arcs, taut screenplay construction, crescendos and rhythm in the story telling, glorious "it could only ever end this way" resolutions --- the stuff of second and third acts -- are the hard work. But hard work is difficult and, thanks to blockbuster cinema's mutation, no longer required.

Professor X, with the help of Cerebro, sees all reboots in development. They are legion.

X-Men First Class Report Card
Fassy & McAvoy: A |  Every Moment Where They Stared At Each Other Meaningfully Or Teary Eyed: A+++ (KISS HIM!) | Production Values: B+ (good stuff mostly) | The Surprise Cameos: A | "Beast" Makeup: D (why can't they get this right? They biffed it in The Last Stand, too) | January Jones: XXX | The Other Villains: ZZZ | Everything Else & The Movie Itself: B- or C+

*Like Professor Charles Xavier, I have a shiny scalp, pleasantly shaped skull, a thing for redheads and bird women, reside in a large building in New York, and am inexplicably fond of stuffy Scott Summers. Unlike Professor X my mutant powers have yet to manifest and I am (fortunately) not confined to a wheelchair, though I feel like I am today as I've thrown my back out. ARGH! Back to sickbay with me.

Yours, Professor Nathaniel R

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Reader Comments (33)

Remember when Emma Frost was supposed to be Rosamund Pike ...

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

Oh, Rosamund.. I have no idea why she isn't a huge star by now. I mean, she's one of the most beautiful women in the world, talented, British (which has helped many others), and yet even Joe Wright didn't give her a lead role in one of his films when they were engaged. What gives? At least she has had some prominent supporting roles lately, which is an encouraging sign.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan

^I could see why Rosamund Pike wouldnt be interested in playing another "Frost" character.

Loved this review. It was hilarious.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I also liked January Jones in this...perfect casting, and now she has her first two big movies post-Mad Men reach #1 for this year. I don't understand why critics slammed her for being icy when, well...that was the point.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I have to say, I think you're selling Bacon's contribution a little short. The look of unbridled, gleeful sadism on his face during his intro scene at the Camps manages to stick with me.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel T

I already miss the MR! visuals *sniffle*

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I can't be the only one who thought January Jones was just awful. I mean, you want to talk tone-deaf - she's one hundred percent flat, right down to the voice. There isn't an ounce of menace or attitude about her. Rosamund Pike would have been worlds better.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

But back to the subject at hand - I am supremely uninterested in comic books,much less comic book movies but I loved reading your take on this. And thanks for the link to the Mark Harris article, which says what I've been feeling for years; interesting that Top Gun is fingered as one of the main villians of that article. (The evil that is Tom Cruise just keeps unfolding with terrifying results...)

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Nathaniel T -- i'm glad someone liked him cuz honestly i felt just nothing from him. meh (and sometimes I do like the Bacon. But I've never really loved that particular villain.

June 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

No mention of Jennifer Lawrence? I thought she was fantastic, the strongest after Fassbender and McAvoy, and as someone who has never read an X-Men comic book and his only reference to the story are the first two films (and the cartoon series, but I barely remember that), I loved seeing the backstory of Mystique and found Lawrence to be an interesting choice for the role. I also loved seeing her relationships with both Erik and Charles. These three performances made the film rise above its flaws for me, as well as some entertaining action sequences, some good tongue-in-cheek humor, and here's something to consider. Does it feel like a beginning only because you know everything about the X-Men universe? What if someone were coming into this movie with no prior knowledge? Would it maybe feel more complete? Or maybe as the end of one story with the possible beginning of another (Hollywood is so far into the sequel business these days there seems to be no other way to do it).

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I was so mad when Magneto goes to Argentina. He arrives to Villa Gesell, which in reality is a town on the coast, it has beaches, a very popular summer desitnation! I couldn´t believe it. The whole movie theatre was hysterical, laughing for the next 2 minutes.
How can they mix up a town on the beach and a town on the mountains, with snow!!!
Don´t they double check this stuff?

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteragustin

I liked that this movie adhered to some of the original stories while also taking liberties. Not everything has to be a literal adaptation and after X3 and wolverine, we could use some variety.

The best part of the entire movie was the scene of Charles challenging Erik to move the satellite. Powerful acting by McAvoy and Fassbender, I had to work hard not to cry along with them lol

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTerence

Richter Scale -- i do have an intimate relationship with the X-Men so i 'm positive that's coloring my reaction. I grew up obsessing over all of them. They were definitely my heroes of choice for my entire childhood, I didn't feel much for JLawrence's MYstique, I'm very mixed on the whole movie actually.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Agreed about Banshee. Caleb Landry Jones practically spun gold with the shade of a character he was given (and very crushworthy, if we're going to get superficial about it).

Zoe Kravitz...I have so many thoughts. Maybe my aversion is due to the fact that I was forced to watch two of her movies. The directors of both The Greatest and It's Kind of a Funny Story screened said films at my school and then gave lectures for which attendance was mandatory and both of those movies...kind of sucked and she kind of sucked in them. Now after X-Men First: Class I'm wondering if she's officially entered the Danny Huston, "I shall be cast in everything despite total lack of screen presence/charisma/notable acting talent of any kind" realm. Not to be unnecessarily bitchy, but I'm kind of astonished that the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa freaking Bonet can be so consistently bland and uninteresting to watch.

I see. Well, as someone who is not obsessed with them, I guess that made me enjoy the movie much more than you did. It is easier when you don't have such a long history with the source material to enjoy someone else's vision. I also enjoyed the style of the film and the throwback to the 1960's was really clever, but besides being this much fun, I appreciated that it had such a talented cast and some intense personal conflict. I also want to say that Kevin Bacon made for a very effective villain. I've always felt he has the right look for a villain (Bacon has always been a very underrated actor in my opinion).

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I thought Bacon did a great job, but I wasn't particularly interested in the villain character... sort of a less interesting re-tread of the Wolverine/Stryker relationship, with the same basic villainous plot we get in the first X-Men. And I thought January Jones was just awful. Not only her monotone performance (playing so-called 'frost' is not the same as delivering each line as though you're reading it from a cue card for the first time), but the deployment of the character in the plot. I dread the thought of seeing her again in the next film.

The Xavier/Mystique plotline didn't really work for me either. For me, the real excitement of the film was the climax between Xavier, Magneto and Moira. McAvoy and Fassbender were both terrific - we should have just seen more of them. And Rose Byrne did an excellent job, and really should have had more time in the film devoted to her.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

I love your report card!! (and agree with it)

For me the movie worked thanks to Fassbender and McAvoy, and to a lesser extent Lawrence and Byrne. I'm not sure what to think of Bacon and January Jones (I thought the plot was really bad at accounting at her absence in the second part of the movie: isn't she supposed to have extraordinary powers, can't she escape?), I really disliked Zoe Kravitz and didn't care much for the other characters. All in all, an ok piece of entertainment, but mostly eye candy for Fassbender and McAvoy fans.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstarfish

drew -- between this and Bridesmaids i may have to adjust my thinking on Rose Byrne.

starfish -- thanks. The fassy & Mcavoy show is definitely THE SHOW. but at least it's a good one within the meh one.

June 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It seemed like Rose Byrne had a much bigger part in whatever the first cut of this film looked like...she was there and then she disappeared for like an hour and then came back in the last 15 minutes to have significance. There wasn't enough of her for me to get a good grip on her acting, but she is having a great summer at the box office.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Sorry, I gotta soap box here and say I probably won't be seeing this movie, at least not until it hits DVD. I'm so exhausted by the constant rebooting, remaking, reinventing, redoing everything that I've already seen before. It's not just the sequels (though those are increasingly tiresome), but reinventing the same thing over and over and over again really just dumbs down the entire movie-going populace. Even George Lucas had the decency to wait 20 years before he went back to his Star Wars universe. There are so many properties out there that could be invested in that haven't been looked at (I'm willing to bet that people will follow some of the comics that aren't at the top of the rack), why keep reinventing? I'm not ready for the next Spider-Man, Superman, Batman-I'm still trying to wrap my head around the current ones. Yes, I love some of the names in this one-McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence-but they're all good enough actors that they can create unique and long dormant characters.

Unless it's James Bond, I think that there should be a requirement that we wait a minimum of 15 years before "reinventing" a series.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

EVERY time Michael stares into James's beautiful eyes, I muttered "kiss him" under my breath. I would have paid IMAX 3D prices to see that make out session.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

I'm on Team Anti-January myself. I agree that she was totally flat the whole time, from voice to posture to body language.t It wasn't a total tragedy, and I thought it kind of almost worked in a way, but the casting could've been much better. Rosamund Pike, for example. Yes. What happened with that anyway?

I liked the whole film in general, though. I think you're being a bit too hard on it, Nat, re: the fact that it's a prequel/reboot and the liberties they took with the story. I think they had very little choice but to do what they did in terms of changing the original class (since many of the real originals were already in the other films and hence young 40 years later), and in terms of being a prequel and having to do a lot of setup, well, yeah. It is what it is. I feel like Batman Begins, etc. had to do the same thing. This worked as well as could've been expected, I thought.

Fassbender and McAvoy really were THE SHOW. And I very much appreciated that they seemed to be playing up Magneto as some kind of vaguely bisexual or gay double outcast. You know he really wanted to bone Xavier and didn't care one whit about Mystique except as fag hag arm candy. And I love that Xavier was undoubtedly the softer, more caring, more traditionally feminine one and yet was pretty obviously straight (hence Erik's confusion - poor boy).

Is it just me reading all this into it, or did it really seem intentional? I think it did.

And isn't it funny that in this whole giant cast that includes some really big talents, the only oscar nominee is little Jennifer Lawrence? (who was not half bad, don't get me wrong, but not exactly best in show either)

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

You know, the more I think about it, the more I feel like Rosamund probably would've acted circles around Kevin Bacon and many of the other cast members, and that that kind of upstaging may not have served the story. Given Emma's rather subordinate role, maybe January's blankness was an appropriate choice? Though I would've loved to see them just make her a more prominent character AND cast an actress with more presence.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

adam -- yeah, i think they were intentionally playing that up for the fans. BUT i think they were obvs trying to have it both ways with the Mystique seduction. that made me giggle a little bit because Ian McKellen and Rebecca Romijn played it so BitchyBesties that one could not have ever imagined them having wild sex.

June 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

A few thoughts I had from seeing it on Friday...

- Wasn't this movie supposed to take place in the 60's? The art direction and design were atrocious at times in that regard, certain fashion and cars had no place in that time frame, the worst offender though? The hairstyles on Havok and Banshee, awful...compare the movie to the time period work on Mad Men, and you'll see what I mean. I understand the film was going to be set in the 70's originally...makes you wonder how much they recycled.

- January Jones, just not a good actress. I beat up on her pretty good for Mad Men, but even my girlfriend, who defended her to me once ("its the character that you hate, not the actress") whispered to me during the movie "wow, she really is awful". I'll leave it at that. Sigh, Rosamund...<3

- I believe Kris Tapley stated that Bryan Singer went back and reshot some of the film, I'm wondering if thats the reason why so many continuity question marks are floating around. Matt Vaughn has said the movie has nothing to do with the previous series but why does Mystique look the same in design? Why reuse the same opening from the first X-men? Why reuse the same mansion? You could see some tug and pull there between what were obviously two different directors working on the project.

- Beast looked like a reject from Cats, Kelsey Grammer was much better in terms of makeup design.

With all that said, I enjoyed the movie. Solid B- completely saved by compelling lead performances by Fassbender and McAvoy. Also, more Azazel please, Jason Flemyng needs to find himself in more movies.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

Adam K, I got that too.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

the film was rather awful :(

what happened to the incredible Bryan Singer??

It's my first time seeing January Jones in anything and I was really pleasantly surprised, I did like her performance practically more than everything else in the movie.

The special effects were crap

The opening scene compared to the one in X-Men (2000) was hilarious, I tried not to laugh when they brought the mother in the room, I only smiled awkwardly.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Loved this review, but I do not understand the leniency of this film's reviews in general, your (characteristically) high-spirited take included. This was quite honestly the worst movie I've seen all year.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

Yeah, I was not a fan of it either. It wasn't nearly as slanderously wretched as X-Men Origins but it definitely didn't soar the way X2 did. And the performances were all wilding ranging from great (Fassy, McAvoy) to solid (Lawrence, Byrne) to questionable (Jones, the kids who didn't make an impression) to downright awful (Bacon, Kravitz) and I blame director Matthew Vaughn for everything else that didn't work too. Remember that tonal mess, Kick-Ass from last year? He's simply not improving since Layer Cake, his debut, and it's annoying me that he meddled with my precious X-Men, the only superheroes I have a soft spot for. I'm with Nate on this one. Also, the makeup was awful all around. I cringed every time Beast came onscreen. Yeesh, how embarrassing.

"that made me giggle a little bit because Ian McKellen and Rebecca Romijn played it so BitchyBesties"

It's little details like these that were sorely missing. I just didn't have much fun, you know? Say what you will about the other films (save Origins) but at least they were polished and had first-rate performers, all around, doing some interesting work. Plus, those Ian McKellen-Patrick Stewart showdowns spoiled me quite a bit, I realized during this film. It just wasn't the same.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I thought a lot of it was “cheesy,” and some of the dialogue actually made me cringe. I thought McAvoy and Fassy were awesome though...and I loved the surprise cameos.

I thought the script needed to 1) have some things cut out of it, as you said, and 2) flesh out the parts that are left over after that. Especially the big finale, where the US and Russia join forces to attack the mutants. I’m like, “you’re telling me that 2 minutes ago these two countries were ready to nuke each other and blow each other’s fleets apart with missiles, and now, with seemingly no communication or discussion between the two countries or consultation with the respective governments, they sort of looked at each other, nodded and winked, and decided to join forces to launch hundreds of missiles at like 10 people standing stranded on a beach??!?!?”

I also think that all of the female characters in this movie were poorly written and given very little to do. Just there to be either sex objects or subordinates who were cast to the side to let the men handle things. Angel was a stripper who never showed any redeeming qualities. Emma Frost was dull, dumb, objectified, and apparently helpless. In the beginning, she could use her powers to “hurt” Magneto’s mind to save Shaw, but she suddenly wasn’t able to do that while she was tied to the bed? Or imprisoned by the CIA? She is literally indestructible, and she can’t break through the glass or throw a punch? Or use her telepathic abilities to create pain or project visions like she did in the beginning of the movie? Emma Frost is SO powerful in the comics. Just so disappointing. And don’t even get me started on Moria MacTaggert. As a CIA agent in a room full of men, this movie wants me to believe that she would tear up and wistfully talk about a kiss???? Who in their right mind would do that? Which of course brings us to my favorite line of the movie THIS IS WHY WOMEN DON’T BELONG IN THE CIA. Which then cuts to Emma Frost, powerful telepath, needing to be saved. GROSS. (end feminist rant here. lol).

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBK

Word to the rant BK. I came out of the film with exactly the same sentiments. I am a huge sucker for kick-ass females. I get new girl-crushes every time I come across a strong, beautiful, balls-to-the-wall female character-- which is part of the reason why I've always been an X-Men fan. The comics have produced decades of awesome female villains and heroes.

I mean, honestly, I knew going in that Emma Frost was going to be DESTROYED by the likes of January Jones. Perhaps it was thought that since Jones is so devoid of character, her acting style might come across as icy. Or something. But ice has style, it's insidiously dangerous; it has appeal and charm and will take down boats in the north Atlantic with a sly smile and a touch of glee.

I don't know what happened with Jennifer Lawrence. I want to blame the writing, but it seems like a fairly straight-forward character dilemma (the Learn to Love and Accept Myself trope) and she somehow failed to make me care. I would think I'd be the target demographic there, too. She honestly tried way too hard.

Oh! And come on. No one was buying that Erik was into her when Xavier was flouncing about in his grey sweatpants. Fassbender could sex up a tree, but even he seemed uninvested in whatever alleged chemistry was supposed to exist between him and Raven/Mystique. Seriously, Vaughn/Singer, was that supposed to be some on-screen beard for you to point to and claim as evidence for Erik/Magneto's straightness? Plainly, the only thing any of us care about is THE SHOW.


And seriously. . . what a waste of Rose Byrne. I hope she got a fat paycheck from that mess at the very least.

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercarpetfibers

wow I was also very impressed with the origin stories and love to watch it, anyone have link for download it?

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfast

wow I was also very impressed with the origin stories and love to watch it, anyone have link for download it?

June 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfast
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