Mania Grade: A-
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- Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Rose Byrne
- Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner
- Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
- Studio: 20th Century Fox
- Run Time: 131 minutes
- Rating: PG-13
Mania Review: X-Men: First Class
By Rob Vaux
June 03, 2011
Mania reviews Matthew Vaughn's X-MEN: FIRST CLASS(2011).
© 20th Century Fox
“Hey wasn’t that part cool when…?”
“Do you remember that bit where they…?”
“Something else I really dug was…”
You can use a lot of formal terms to describe why you feel a film works or not, but one sure sign comes with comments like these: little moments, incidental details, and bits and pieces that just tickle you to no end. The more you think about the movie, the more nifty things you find to talk about. X-Men: First Class is stuffed to the gills with nifty things, including a sharp story, strong performances, and a way of making you think even as it pumps you full of adrenaline.
Ostensibly, the early adventures of Charles Xavier (played here by James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr /Magneto (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t hold much interest. We know where they end up, after all, and while Magneto ranks as possibly the greatest villain in all of comics, Professor X always worked better as a guiding mentor than a front-line hero. First Class nimbly scales that obstacle with a number of secret weapons, not the least of which is its 1960s setting. Early critics have noted its similarities to Connery-era James Bond pictures, and that energy grants it a unique perspective on the world of Marvel’s Merry Mutants. Lehnsherr actually shows up in Big Sean’s famous grey three-piece from Goldfinger at one point, and the overall threat – inducing the United States and Soviet Russia to destroy each other – comes straight out of the SPECTRE playbook.
The instigator is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon; yes, really), sinister power-monger and leader of the secretive Hellfire Club which has designs on global domination. Mutants – men and women born with extraordinary powers – are appearing in greater and greater numbers, and Shaw envisions a future where they (and he) reign supreme. Xavier and Lehnsherr stand in his way, though both for very different reasons. First Class develops their friendship/rivalry exquisitely: Xavier – cocksure son of wealth and privilege – sees only the best in humanity, while Lehnsherr – survivor of the concentration camps – knows just how evil they can be. The former writes treatises on genetics and picks up girls with his clever mind-reading act. The latter acts as a one-man Nazi hunter: tracking down the instigators of the Holocaust and making sure they scream good and loud before they die.
Director Matthew Vaughn scores his biggest hits with early scenes of Lehnsherr on the prowl: honed by righteous anger and savoring his vengeance like fine wine. His motivations come into clear focus -- aided by a rich and nuanced performance from Fassbender – and at the end of the day, First Class may agree with his point of view more than Xavier’s. That sobering notion tempers the swinging 60s nostalgia without overwhelming it: shading the good times with dark shadows and providing strong moral subtext to chew on amid all the action.
McAvoy, for his part, matches Fassbender at every turn (as does Bacon, who couldn’t rock this scene harder if he tried), and First Class works primarily as an exquisite study of its central pair. Fast friends and instant blood brothers, each one provides the other with vital insight, yet neither deters from their opposing course. Xavier believes that mutants can set a positive example for humanity; Magneto is convinced that war is the only answer. As the threat from Shaw rises, they join forces to meet it, even though they both suspect that their alliance cannot last. Their central argument spills over into the young students they both recruit, with figures like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Beast (Nicholas Holt) debating whether or not they should assimilate with humans or stand proudly as God made them.
Vaughn combines their struggles with historical fact, fanciful suggestion, and details pulled straight from the comics into a supremely appealing package. The Hellfire Club makes an ideal adversary for the setting – all privileged indulgence and pop-culture fizz – which Vaughn augments with some intriguing ties to Lehnsherr’s origins. He lays down solid groundwork for mankind’s growing suspicion of mutants, while confidently establishing the basis for things like Cerebro, the X-Men’s jet, and the school in upstate New York where budding young superheroes can find a safe haven.
The effects-heavy action scenes do their job admirably enough, but as it turns out, Vaughn doesn’t need them. The film’s best moments come with subtle filmmaking tricks – the odd splash of water from a drinking fountain, a chilling reveal in a concentration camp office, a marvelous bit of verbal turnabout that punctuates the climax – which pile up so fast and thick you can hardly keep track of them all. From them emerges an intelligent subtext, an exciting historical adventure and another deeply respectful presentation of some deeply beloved characters. Even the closing credits are a stone groove, mixing one part Saul Bass with two parts Maurice Binder to keep us seated until the lights come on again. (There’s no Easter egg after the credits, but keep your eye peeled for a few fun cameos.)
The only real complaint comes with overall continuity… which is a complete hash, but – to be fair – got screwed up good and proper by earlier X-Men movies. You have to accept the fact that Emma Frost is older here than she was in Wolverine, despite taking place fifteen years earlier; that key meetings alluded to in the first film now have no basis in fact; and that the whole “Professor X in a wheelchair” timeline will give you a headache if you try to wrap your head around it. First Class slaps a few Band-Aids on the problem, but simply can’t do its job if it tries to fit everything in properly. Rather than destroy itself in an effort to explain it all away, it simply cuts the Gordian knot: concentrating on telling a good story first and worrying about how it all fits in later. It’s a wise policy, and though it leaves a few lingering questions, better those than ones like “why did this movie suck so much?”
No fear on that front, however. “Suck” couldn’t touch this bad boy with a 10-foot pole, and while I remain a defender of Wolverine and X3, you can sense the palpable relief most people will feel at the franchise returning to form. Wait, did I say “returning?” First Class actually surpasses its predecessors, making it the best of the five X-Men films so far. With Thor and now First Class, this is turning into a banner year for Marvel adaptations. Someone remind Captain America to bring its A-game, because the bar just rose a little higher.