Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

Amidst the chaos of World War II, three prepubescent mutants become aware of their special gifts.  In a German concentration camp, Erik Lensherr discovers he has the power of magnetism.  In Westchester County New York, the telepathic Charles Xavier meets the shape shifting Raven.  Flash forward to the early 1960’s, and the atomic age has made the reality of nuclear war a constant threat.  Xavier has dedicated his abilities to the study of genetic mutation, as well as trying to find a bridge between mankind and mutants.  Raven is now his foster sister.  Erik trots the globe on a vengeful quest.  The seemingly divergent paths of both parties lead directly to Sebastian Shaw and his associates, who represent a considerable threat to world security.  With the help of a mysterious CIA agent, Lensherr and Xavier join forces to stop Shaw and find other mutants to join there cause.  Thus begins a new age in the history of mankind.

X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the X-Men films.  Though it doesn’t contradict the continuity of the previous outings, it manages to carve out its own distinct niche. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films in the franchise, has stayed on as producer and allowed Matthew Vaughn to take the reigns.  Vaughn and his fellow screenwriters have concocted a superhero extravaganza that is both a parody and a celebration of the apparent silliness at the heart of all such properties.  It finds an amicable balance between seriousness and camp, respecting its source material while maintaining a keen self awareness.

Magneto (Micheal Fessbender) works his mutant magic.

Previous X-Men films never effectively portrayed the issues and circumstances that gave rise to superhero team.  The writers of X-Men: First Class make prejudice a constant factor in every aspect of the film, even showing the ways it affects the characters themselves.  These effects don’t manifest in simple action and super powered showdowns.  X-Men: First Class offers us characters with inner conflicts that are unsure of their place in the world.  Their movement is still in its infancy.

Bryan Singer was always chiefly interested in the human drama of the X-Men universe.  The action was an afterthought, begrudgingly shoehorned into the third act.  This made the first two X-Men films exceedingly dull.  Vaughn seems to have taken Singers vision and executed it in an infinitely more effective manner.  He too saves much of the action for the final set piece, but he does not do so out of obligation or disinterest.  The preceding sequences are small in scope, but show ample imagination in how the characters use their powers.  The audience does not get a full demonstration of what the mutants can do until the finale.  By then, the viewer has a full understanding of just how these guys are able to do what they do.

The mighty mutants.

In another improvement over the Singer films, the characters in X-Men: First Class have very real bonds with one another.  Much of this is due to the cast, who infuse their characters with wit and personality.  James McAvoy and Michael Fessbender take center stage as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr/Magneto.  There friendship forms the emotional core of the film.  Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is not just left on the periphery.  The same can be said for Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Henry "Hank" McCoy / Beast and just about every other character.  No one feels like excess baggage.  Kevin Bacon revels in his turn as Sebastian Shaw, chewing scenery in a decidedly understated manner. 

X-Men: First Class has finally presented a suitable formula for superhero films that focus on teams rather than individual heroes.  While Wolverine was clearly the main character of franchise previously, X-Men: First Class divvies up the spotlight a bit more.  It allows all of it’s mutants to take part in the drama as well as the action.  By achieving that balance, it emerges as the first truly enjoyable and engrossing film of this seminal superhero franchise.  Matthew Vaughn and his associates have rebooted the X-Men at full power.  Hopefully that energy can be sustained for a few sequels. 


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