Movie Review – X-Men: First Class (2011)

by NIR SHALEV

With comic book adaptations being released by DC Comics and Marvel Studios left, right, and center some are bound to be a miss. But X-Men: First Class is a hit because of a good screenplay (the most important part of a film is a good script), good actors, and true X-Men fans sitting behind the keyboard and the camera.

While the film takes place in a recognizable “real world” the story centers on mutants who live among humans and try their best to blend in. We begin in Poland, 1944 where we watch as Jewish families are separated by fences and gates. One boy cries out in anger for his mother and mysteriously tears apart the gate before him. A man by the name of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) notices the boy’s gift for moving metal with his mind and attempts to create a weapon out of him. That boy, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) grows up to become a Nazi hunter and we meet up with him again in 1962 as he scours the globe in search of fugitive Nazis and especially of Shaw.

In 1944, we also meet a young boy in England, Charles Xavier who can read others’ minds. He befriends a young girl with blue skin who can shape shift into other people. In 1962, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a university professor who teaches about mutation and the blue skinned girl, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is his best friend. Professor Xavier is recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) in order to help them find now international terrorist Sebastian Shaw.

Charles meets Erik because they are both pursuing Shaw, and soon after Erik joins the team. They decide to search for other mutants and recruit Angel, who has fairy-like wings and can spit balls of acid; Hank McCoy/Beast, a remarkably intelligent scientist with deformed feet, who can swing upside down using them and run incredibly fast; Sean Cassidy/Banshee, who can break glass with his powerful shriek and learns to fly by deflecting himself from the ground with the sound waves he makes; Armando Muñoz /Darwin who can change his body type in order to adapt to forthcoming danger; and Alex Summers/Havok, who can emit a red plasma in the form of energy and use it to destroy anything. They all train together and greatly improve their abilities as mutants in preparation for the big battle with Shaw and his team of mutants consisting of a psychic named Emma Frost (January Jones), a demon named Azazel, and Riptide, who can create whirlwinds from his hands.

This is, obviously an origin film about the X-Men from 50 years ago and we watch as the world is discovering mutants for the first time. Before Erik met Xavier he thought that he was the only mutant in the world, and so did a few of the others. I liked that and I also liked the replication of the 1960s in dialogue, clothing, art direction, and color schemes. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a terrifying piece of history, is skillfully worked into the plot and so is the fiction that incorporates Sebastian Shaw as the mastermind behind the crisis. We watch as he controls the most powerful people in the United States and Russia and the way that he turns them against each other.

What makes this film work so well after a series of films that began mediocre and only got worse are the acting and the screenplay. McAvoy and Fassbender are the best parts of the film. As Charles/Professor X and Erik/Magneto they portray their characters as if this wasn’t a film about mutants and superheroes. Fassbender’s Erik is revenge driven and anger fuels his power of telekinetically moving any or all magnetic objects. In one great scene, Charles enters Erik’s mind and finds a long lost memory that incorporates a beautiful moment between Erik and his mother. Charles counsels Erik to use his powers from a place “somewhere between anger and serenity.” Watching Erik transform into a man that tries to find serenity is powerful and yet not as powerful as his eventual transformation into Magneto, a man who hates all of mankind because deep down inside he knows they will never let mutants live with them in harmony. This is not a spoiler; because this is a prequel we always know what choice he will make in the end.

The special effects leave a lot to be desired. They get the job done but they almost always look very fake. Every scene with Erik in it is awesome and the special effects there are effective but the bigger the set-piece the more work needed to be put into the CGI. Also, the third act has way too much crammed into it, almost as if the producers were afraid that this film would bomb at the box office and a sequel would never be made. But those little hiccups don’t get in the way of this being a good movie.

This film is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who directed an excellent film called Layer Cake (2004), a good fantasy film called Stardust (2007), and then a terrible film called Kick-Ass (2010). Now he’s back on form with X-Men: First Class and my expectations were blown out of the water. This is not an amazing film nor an incredible one but one that’s just really good. And really good is a terrific rating for this being the fifth X-Men film in a lackluster series.

3 stars

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Nir and Helen have dueling reviews of Kick-Ass.

3 responses to “Movie Review – X-Men: First Class (2011)

  1. Although I don’t agree with you on the other X-Men films (aside from X3, which I’ve avoided watching because I’ve never heard anything good about it), we’re pretty much of the same mind on this installment. The fraught and ultimately broken comradeship between Charles and Erik is the film’s dramatic spine so it’s fitting that it’s also the film’s strong point. The character drama is compelling on its own terms and as a lead-in to the main storyline to which this film serves as prequel. In fact, I was looking forward to seeing “First Class” almost entirely based on the casting of McAvoy and Fassbender and they did not let me down.

    None of the younger mutants or Shaw’s minions are especially memorable characters aside from Hank/Beast. However, dramatically speaking that was only an issue in the case of Raven/Mystique. The character is written to play the role of spiritual battleground for Charles/Professor X and Erik/Magneto’s philosophical warfare. Far from embodying the mutants’ existential struggle, she comes across as little more than a petulant teenager. (Moreover, I know physically Raven doesn’t age normally, but mentally and emotionally shouldn’t she be in her mid/late 20s “18 years later” in 1962?) Jennifer Lawrence showed none of the intensity or maturity she brought to “Winter’s Bone.”

    • You’re absolutely correct about Raven/Mystique.
      Re X-Men, I hate Wolverine as a character. If he can’t be killed then I don’t like him. I also hate The Hulk. Now, I like the first X-Men film bt it’s not a great film, I really dislike the second film because it’s just a Wolverine film, in the third film, ultimately, nothing happens, and the Wolverine prequel is, for lack of a better work garbage. It’s also an utterly inaccurate original story of the immortal character.

      Now I have devised two ways to kill Wolverine but no one will so I’ll keep them to myself. And how awesome was it to not have Wolverine in X-Men: First Class, aside from that funny cameo?

  2. I had a great time with this film and I thought that the casting of Fassbender was a smart decision on Vaughn’s part because he just has that look and feel about him that is so mysterious, yet just so amazingly breath-taking. Good Review!

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