Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
In this SPOILER-FILLED review, Tony Lazlo praises the unusual ingredients that compose the brisk, entertaining new X-Men movie.
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Matthew Vaughn’s reboot of the X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class, draws liberally from the entire X-Men mythos, early James Bond, the old British Avengers series, as well as Get Smart and the original Casino Royale (the bad one) – and yet it works.
He front-loads his cast with hard-hitting thespians like Kevin Bacon, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, and then he makes them work alongside fresh-faced Millennial unknowns – and yet it works.
For no apparent reason, he sticks Oliver Platt and Michael Ironside in there while also assigning a major, vampish villain role to dead-eyed Mad Men alum January Jones – and yet it works.
He nearly sabotages his climactic scene with a volley of dancing ballistic missiles, all while choreographing a battle among some of the goofier-looking (and -powered) mutants in the X-Men canon – and yet it works.
It works. I can’t quite explain it, but Vaughn’s movie hums along at a brisk, confident pace, devil-may-care of the rotten hand that he and his creative team were dealt. Most comic-book fans probably know that this project started out as a prequel movie that focused on Magneto. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Vaughn – who dodged the bullet of directing the impressively shitty X-Men: The Last Stand – was ushered back into the franchise to give it a kick in the junk.
Somehow, Vaughn and his creative team stumbled onto the exact strategy that the James Bond franchise needs to revitalize itself – make it a period piece, and revel in the cinematic quirks of the era. The opening reels of First Class are pure Goldfinger, with Fassbender’s Magneto (here recast as a Nazi-hunter) standing in for Connery’s Bond. I suspect that the first half of First Class will age better than its second, mainly because its tone is so much more self-assured and fun.
There’s a lot to admire here. Fassbender makes a commanding Lensherr, while McAvoy invests good ol’ Professor X with all of the brilliance and compassion we’d expect of Marvel Comics’ Martin Luther King. Both lead actors seem a little baffled to find themselves at the center of a comic-book blockbuster, and that bafflement is both an asset and a detriment. It’s an asset when it forces them to approach these unusual roles with passion and commitment, but a detriment when they actually use their powers. Did Fassbender have to strike an “alakazam” pose every time he invoked Magneto’s ability? Did McAvoy have to touch his temple every time Xavier invoked his?
I know I’m being hard on Fassbender and McAvoy, but when I watch movies based on comics or other literary properties I like, I’m not the best critic, because I’m always cheering for them to be good. I go into these movies not with a cleansed palate and an open mind, but laden with the baggage of a fanboy, and it physically embarrasses me when they blunder. (You should’ve seen me watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. I gave that movie more body-English than a bowler throwing a 7-10 split.) I guess you could argue that the temple-pressing and alakazamming were products of Lensherr’s and Xavier’s inexperience – crutches they used before they truly mastered their powers – but I just thought they looked goofy. And I don’t want my comic-book movies to look goofy. A vain aspiration, I suppose, but that’s how I feel.
Moving on: I mentioned earlier how Vaughn and his team draw liberally from the entire X-Men mythos for their tale. For the uninitiated, the screenplay – which includes the work of half a dozen people, including Vaughn and franchise helmer Bryan Singer – features characters and elements from more than 30 years of X-Men lore. The villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, creepy and intense) has been around since the early 80s, while one of the heroes, Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), was introduced to the comics in the early 2000s. Similarly, the character Havok (Lucas Till) has been around since 1969, but Havok himself is the younger sibling of Cyclops, who was seen in the other, modern-day movies.
I point out those oddities not to complain, but to praise. Vaughn, Singer and the team behind First Class had a good sense for what characters and elements would work and what wouldn’t, and they chose well. Continuity wonks may bitch and moan, but for the most part, the movie works. Memorable scenes include the opening – a riff on the concentration camp sequence from Singer’s 2000 original – and a confrontation between Fassbender’s Lensherr and a pair of Nazis-in-hiding. Another great sequence plays like The Dirty Dozen by way of Austin Powers as Xavier and Lensherr round up a posse of mutant recruits, all of it to the tune of brassy dance music straight out of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Again, I don’t know why, but it works.
Less successful is the final third of the movie, which is weighed down by the inevitable presence and participation of Angel Salvadore (whose mutation includes fairy wings and the ability to spit flaming phlegm) and Banshee (whose supersonic voice gives him the ability to fly and knock over enemies). Don’t get me wrong – I adore these characters, and Vaughn gives us the best onscreen version of this crew we’re going to see, but I felt myself giving the movie a lot of body-English.
The presentation of fan-favorite Beast (Nicholas Hoult) was also immune to even my best body-English. Beast is a grand old Marvel creation. Big, powerful and covered with blue fur, the superintelligent Dr. Hank McCoy is a prehensile embodiment of the central theme of the entire mutant wing of the Marvel empire – that heart is more important than appearance – and yet even on their second try (Kelsey Grammer played Beast in Brett Ratner’s shitfest), Beast still looks awful onscreen. It’s not Hoult’s fault. He delivers a quiet, thoughtful performance, but damn that makeup looks silly.
Not so with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Lawrence is saddled with the same scaly blue look that Rebecca Romijn sported in the earlier movies, and yet it works for some reason. Maybe it only works because I’m a guy, and Mystique is essentially a naked woman onscreen, but all the same, the look departs from the character’s appearance in the comics (where she usually wears a white dress) and is so freakish that it adds to the effect. It also helps that a gifted actor like Lawrence gives compelling life to the role and appears in some of the movies’s best scenes.
Speaking of naked women, kudos to Vaughn for getting the incredibly talented Rose Byrne into her underwear 30 seconds after her first appearance onscreen, but holy Crom – when his original Emma Frost (Alice Eve) dropped out, why did he have to cast January Jones? Jones’ brand of non-acting works for her dead-ended housewife on Man Men, but when tasked to demonstrate any range beyond that, she draws cold, no matter how hot she looks in Frost’s costumes.
There’s more to praise and more to bemoan – I’ll leave the dancing missiles for the audience to judge – but I want to underline my most forceful reaction: That this is a damn good movie. The period setting’s a masterstroke. The shadow history/Cuban Missile Crisis storyline adds gravitas. Kevin Bacon came to play. McAvoy and Fassbender are brilliant leads.
And the franchise is in good hands. Here’s hoping for an even better second class.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.