Thursday 2 June 2011

Today's Review: X-Men: First Class

Ah, X-Men, the superhero movie that started it all. Once Wolverine and co. had SFX'd their way through mutant baddies, there was no stopping the floodgates opening and countless Hollywood superhero effects fests coming out. Some were good, some were awful, but eventually people began to tire of them, at least I did.

But then something changed. The gritty reboot occurred. While some find this more tiresome than than the initial flood of outlandish superhero outings, there's no denying the enormous success of Nolan's Batman resurrection. Then came Watchmen, a particularly faithful adaption in my eyes (apart from the ending, but that's another story), and slowly everyone realised that making their movies a bit darker they could produce something quite different. With The Green Lantern coming out soon and looking pretty serious but awesome, it seems DC Comics have firmly settled into the genre, and while Marvel have thus far stuck with lighter, action fuelled movies, it seems they're starting to take a step in the right direction.

So we have X-Men: First Class. It didn't get too much of a buzz when it was announced, as everyone seemed to hate X-Men 3 and Wolverine, and they probably assumed the franchise was dead and buried movie-wise. But X-Men: First Class is awesome. Sure, it's still got the special effects laden action scenes, but that's kind of expected when you pit whirlwind creating guys and shape shifting girls against each other.

But this has something more. It's the origin story that Wolverine really should have been given. It has depth, and character, and the historic backdrop only tends to add to the sense of realism. First Class follows the younger years of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), and their discovery of their powers and mutants like them. We see some old characters, like Mystique and Beast, and get introduced to some other mutants previously unseen in the movies. Some of the backstories aren't really as fleshed out as they can be, and that's where that certain Hollywood charm still remains. There seem to be a few too many mutants hanging around who are just there to blow shit up. But there is plenty of dramatic backstory and interaction between characters to really add a level of drama unseen so far in the franchise.

In particular, Magneto's backstory is very well portrayed, and Fassbender does a wonderful job of letting his emotions flow out during his trials and tribulations. This really is Erik's movie, and while Charles plays a major part in his own right it seems to be mostly facilitating the inevitable change in Erik from good to evil. The movie starts with Erik as a small boy, recreating the gate twisting scene from the very first X-Men movie, and introduces Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is a bit of a dick really. He's especially a bit of a dick later on in the 1960s, when he and his band of mutants are attempting to commandeer the Cold War in order to start World War III for their own gain. Too bad Erik's pissed off and looking to kill him, because he and some mutants under the supervision of the CIA are looking to screw up his plans.

The scenes are beautifully paced, chopping and changing between action and dramatic one-to-ones with relative ease. There's a great stand off in an Argentinian bar between Erik and two of his old enemies, which reminded me just a little bit of the amazing tension-laden bar scene from Inglourious Basterds. Fassbender sounds mightily friendly-yet-threatening even while speaking German (apparently a couple of mutants also have the power of being fluent in several other languages). The historic setting of the Cold War really helps to give this movie a more serious tone,  with real footage of Kennedy's speeches spliced in for good measure. It does a much better job than at the start of Wolverine where the setting skips through several key points in history that wolverine happens to be at. It's especially nice to see that the first X-Men films aren't being completely abandoned like the Spiderman trilogy is with its own gritty reboot. There are plenty of allusions to the events that take place in the future, such as the chess games between Xavier and Magneto and a particularly wonderful cameo from Hugh Jackman.

A lot of the time through the movie I was trying to compare it to more serious comic book movies like The Dark Knight, and started to think there was too much dramatic music going on a lot of the time. But I soon realised that First Class is very effectively taking the middle ground between super realistic gritty movie and over the top Hollywood action movie. In this capacity it's attempting to please regular movie-goers and comic book aficionados alike. While I haven't read much X-Men, I'd like to think that this movie is pretty faithful to the actual story behind our two favourite mutant band leaders, because there appears to be a lot of attention to detail put into its creation. Besides, it's hard to be completely gritty and low key when you have bits of metal flying around and discs of light blowing shit up. DC may have had the luck of having some ultra-cool dramatic movie outings, but we'll see when The Green Lantern comes out if they can match the quality of First Class when the lights and explosions start getting thrown around.

My rating: 5/5

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