X-Men: First Class Educates and Then Some
By Kristin Battestella
I have been waiting for X-Men: First Class for sometime indeed. After the likes of the less than stellar Fantastic Four update and the dismal SyFy Channel attempt at The Phantom (A teen on a purple motorcycle is the best you can come up with for that franchise, really?), my expectations were exceeded by director Matthew Vaughn’s refreshingly simple concept to, as Artie Shaw would say, ‘Begin the Beguine’.
In 1944, Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) witnesses Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt’s (Kevin Bacon) torture firsthand thanks to his unique ability to manipulate metal. Young and privileged Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher, later James McAvoy), however, takes in the scaled and blue mutant Raven (Morgan Lily, then Jennifer Lawrence) and by 1962, grows up to become a prominent scholar on mutations. Erik (now Michael Fassbender) travels the globe in search of those who destroyed his family, ruthlessly cutting a swath towards Schmidt- who now goes by the name Sebastian Shaw. Shaw and his fellow mutants Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) play both American plots and Russian plans against each other in hopes of starting nuclear war- and CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) needs Xavier’s help to catch them. Xavier and mutant genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Holt) use Cerebro to locate other mutants including Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones). Charles also convinces Erik to join the team, although the latter is only interested in his personal vengeance quest. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA turns to Xavier and his mutants to defeat Shaw, but Erik is convinced the innate fear of mankind against mutants will be their undoing.
Why do we have this thick, self-centered, and ever repeating notion of taking fifty years of comic books- or any literary or media franchise for that matter- and changing them to make it supposedly more relevant to our fleetingly contemporary minds and styles? Producer Bryan Singer (director of X-Men and X-2: X-Men United) and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) smartly go back to the times and places where the X-Men comics began and create a unique, vibrant, and no less relatable tale. Writers Jane Goldman (of Stardust and Kick Ass also with Vaughn), Zach Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller (Andromeda, Thor), and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air) craft a timeless story of friendship, belonging, and fracture wrapped with retro design and would be behind the scenes history. Action and modern witticisms are not at the forefront here, characters and the plot at hand are. This switcharoo away from what we are accustomed is all the more refreshing because it works so well. Overall, the dialogue is properly rooted in the sixties with fine, intelligent debates. Some may be surprised at the slower and quieter moments here thanks to this focus on the personal, but the pace of X-Men: First Class is just right, a natural progression and build up of players and events. What needs to happen happens, leading up to everything viewers of the first films and readers of the comics already know. Even with such built in awareness, there is still room for surprises, tension, suspense, and suspension of disbelief. Hello, even knowing how the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out, I was still holding my breath at First Class’ outcome. That’s impressive!
I’m a little upset about the claims that there are no true stars and big names in X-Men: First Class. How is one to become a star but by stealing the show in a film like this? And who is it that has the viewers holding their breaths and unable to blink when he is onscreen? Why Michael Fassbender and his young Magneto, of course. (All of you who thought I was nuts for praising his work at last understand what I mean- the lady behind me in the theater shouting ‘Dayumn!’ every time he did something sure caught on quick!) As the vengeful and reluctant dark horse on Xavier’s team, Fassbender (300, Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds, Jane Eyre) excels with a wildcard abandon for languages, action, anger, rage, tears, and vulnerability. Even knowing the villain he is to become, we can’t help but understand where Erik’s ideologies come from and see that his wary theories on human error aren’t that far from the truth. Again, those are the best kinds of bad guys- the ones self justified in what they do. We want Charles to, well, complete Erik- heal him and make his soul whole again. When Erik is laughing along with the other mutants and sharing long untouched memories with Charles, we believe he could amount to great things for the common good. As much as I love Ian McKellen, your thoughts are not on the elder Man of Magnetism here. Fassbender is the Vader of X-Men: First Class. It’s downright beautiful when Xavier truly touches Erik mentally and they save each other’s lives in turn. It’s beautiful because confident, intelligent, sexy badass guys aren’t supposed to get touchy feely! To reach such poignancy only to see Professor X and Magneto then fracture is so, so sweet. As opposed to his avante garde independent films, Fassbender most definitely proves he can handle the lead in larger movies with X-Men: First Class. Ladies who didn’t love him before will want to take him home and wipes his tears while male comic book fans will shake his hand and fight along side him.
Though some audiences were upset by the occasional accent changes or thought Fassbender’s accent dropped all together towards the end of the film; honestly, I only noticed a major Irish inflection once in two viewings. Not that his voice didn’t waver, it certainly could have. However, when you are so into the movie and the dialogue being exchanged, at some point you just don’t notice that McAvoy is really Scottish and sounds nothing like Patrick Stewart, either. It’s a half hour into the movie before Fassbender even speaks English anyway. His French- normally assumed to be such a lovely and romantic language- is used wonderfully in a threatening interrogation. We already saw the charmingly tragic Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) speaking German as the young and traumatized Erik; but knowing this ruthless French is not Lehnsherr’s primary language only makes him all the more deadly, even scary in his scorn. American audiences only familiar with Fassbender’s undercover, German speaking English spy from Inglorious Basterds might even erroneously expect his natural accent to be British, but his German here is again flawless. It’s edgy, angry, sarcastic, and he switches so smoothly from an effortless Spanish in that great Argentinean stand off. Even if there were no subtitles, you understand Erik’s deadly inflections whatever language he speaks. Add his budding 007 style complete with black turtlenecks, fedoras, and three-piece suits to that deadly magnetism and ruthlessness, and you know not to mess with this guy. So then, seeing Fassbender turn on the dime to laughter, tears, and mutant inspirations is just the biggest star making bonus- and it is about time American viewers got on the Fass’ bender. If vocal inflictions are all the fault you can find in his performance here… Touché Fassy.
In some ways, I feel bad that Fassbender has stolen some of James McAvoy’s thunder, because there is nothing wrong with McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) in this film. He wonderfully embodies the youth and zest of our prequel Charles with such compassion, hope, and vigor. McAvoy was, in fact, better than I expected him to be. Just Fassbender was better- and the two of them together, god sent! Xavier begins First Class a little dense or arrogant in his superior thinking of mutant mind and alcohol. McAvoy doesn’t have an easy task in making the do gooder rich boy likeable- Charles is spoiled and has it all compared to the juicy grey material and developmental arc for Magneto. The juxtaposition of these two parallel but divergent friends is the core here. Xavier learns some humility at a very big price- despite having big mutant dreams of saving the world and living peacefully with homo sapiens. Ironically, his enlightenment and awakening of Erik’s full power turns out to be his own undoing. Hot damn! Frankenstonian aspects, Jekyll and Hyde amalgams, and Neanderthal comparisons add even more spin to this layered relationship and deep superhero movie. How can two men who believe such drastically different things save each other? Are mutants to be the gracious superiors of humanity or should the advanced dominate before mankind lashes out in the extreme and fearful measures we are so clearly capable of? Is superiority defined by compassion or action? Which are you supposed to choose when neither choice is necessarily right nor wrong? Yes, you get these lofty concepts and more from First Class.
While internal conflict certainly goes a long way, Kevin Bacon (Mystic River, Apollo 13, Footloose, its Kevin Bacon, people!) as an awesome Bond-esque villain certainly helps up the ante. Bacon is decrepitly delightful in his opening incarnation Klaus Schmidt- a scientist who thinks he knows where the Nazis have erred in their experimentations. His suave Sebastian Shaw is equally juicy and selfish. Bacon is not, hee, hamming it up, but he is enjoying himself with all the great sixties accessories, babes, and diabolical plans. Shaw is vain, intelligent, and totally cruel. What a guy! Though it is probably highly unlikely thanks to an already jammed packed hardware season, I’d love to see Bacon with a Supporting Actor nomination. He sets First Class in motion and sees his agenda through- for our mutants to defeat him is an insurmountable, uphill battle. Does Shaw care that the planet is collateral damage? Nope. By contrast, Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) perfectly struggles to embrace her mutant identity as the blue skinned Mystique. Where does she fit in between Charles’ vague attention and higher goals and Erik’s anti-human hell bent? I’m shocked that anyone would think this woman is fat, and her gentle possibilities and dividing discussions with Nicholas Hoult’s (About a Boy, Skins) Beast moves naturally in reflection to the primary relationship and overall motifs here. The handheld, up close, personal filming of Hank’s transformation is also almost werewolf in tone. He is ashamed and unable to control the, uh, beast within. Is that all being a mutant is- fear and secrecy- or can their gifts be embraced for good? The main players of X-Men: First Class offer plenty of good versus evil as expected in a superhero movie, but there’s star-making finer performance and thought, too.
The Lesser Mutants
Adding to some of that superhero fun are the naughty and villainous mutant henchmen. Or henchwoman, as is the case with January Jones as Emma Frost. Jones (Mad Men) does her icy duty and serves her purpose in the first half of film, but is largely absent for the finale. Her uneven treatment and bitchy exterior are slightly mishandled, yes. However, if First Class is meant to be like a Bond movie in tone, this pattern should be expected. The pursuit of a subordinate always leads to the revealed major plan and pursuit of the main villain. The women may all seem mistreated, but again, a sixties era show wouldn’t have equal representation. I know that is an easy copout answer, but Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, Damages) is undercover in a garter belt (hehe that isn’t much coverage!) for goodness sake, go with it. Claims that women shouldn’t be in the CIA are rectified behind closed doors with the admittances of how important the women along side the battle actually are, but that praise is fittingly never said to their faces. The women in First Class- whether human, good mutant, bad mutant- are all misunderstood for a reason. I’m more upset that Spanish actor Alex Gonzalez as Riptide had no lines and Vaughn favorite Jason Flemyng (Clash of the Titans, Primeval) as Azazel had so little to do. Though both cool, neither is given much to contribute beyond the big battles and flashy badness. Does this detract from the film? Strangely, no. These are villainous henchman who are supposed to be badass and seemingly unstoppable for our heroes. Both men get that juice across just fine and make the most of the little they are given.
Unfortunately, the rest of the ‘X-kids’ as I call them are lightweight and merely okay at best. Edi Gathegi (Twilight) as Darwin is completely misused, even insultingly mishandled. Not much time is really spent on the second tier’s particular abilities or any pouts about their mutations- just enough for it to not get super juvenile. Instead, the smart newsreels, split screen, and splicing effects during the training montage helps make what could be a typical teen eighties collage with badass music remain sixties cool. We notice how neat the effect from the time is almost as much as the supposedly important kids harnessing their powers to get the job done. The youthful players are only at their best in scenes with Xavier or Erik and are otherwise the underdeveloped detriment of First Class. In some ways, it might have been better to have had two films- one to know Xavier and Magneto and the second for the recruitment of young mutants. I feel harsh in saying it, but Zoe Kravitz’ (Californication) Angel does nothing to advance the film. Lucas Till (Hannah Montana: The Movie) as Havok seems to be too 21st century flippant and mutant cool as well, putting both in direct opposition to the pain, angst, compassion and ruthlessness from the primary players. Caleb Landry Jones (Friday Night Lights) as Banshee is more tolerable thanks to some of his humor, but really were he and Angel only included in the film ahead of so many other mutants just for cool dogfight flying above Cuba? Did any of these younger mutants really need to be there? Honestly, the answer is no. First Class’ bread and butter is in its main players, and every time the story cuts away from them, you can’t wait to get back.
However, I seem to be alone in my dislike of the beloved surprise cameo in X-Men: First Class. This no big shocker appearance doesn’t really do anything to advance the story at hand, thus my red pencil editing brain is screaming it shouldn’t be there. Not that the scene in of itself doesn’t work or isn’t funny, just perhaps such shoehorn stunt casting is better served as an Easter egg or extended video footage. First Class stands up just fine without you know who, bub. Why not have someone who may be Gambit throwing our boys out of a poker game with some flaming cards? Why not have a girl named Kitty scream at their approach and run through a wall? For what this appearance cost, I would much rather have had some more time spent on developing the younger mutants already in the film. By contrast, the second, more unexpected cameo serves a purpose here, working beautifully with Jennifer Lawrence’s development of Mystique and her relationship with Magneto. I am still thinking about this scene! Oliver Platt (Huff, The Bronx is Burning) as the unnamed CIA Man in Black is also a lot of fun at inviting the mutants in and giving them their gadgetry, and the aforementioned Rose Byrne does just fine in what she’s given. I’d like to see more of her MacTaggert and Professor X in a sequel, hint hint. Lastly, I must mention the fine ‘hey that guy!’ everybody and their grandma appearances rounding out the cast- including Ray Wise (the dad from Twin Peaks), Glenn Morshower (24), Matt Craven (Crimson Tide), James Remar (Dexter), Don Creech (Ned’s Declassified), and Michael Ironside (he’s effing Ironside, people!)
Bond. Design Bond.
Now then, do allow me a paragraph for more on the sweet, sweet Bondian aspects of X-Men: First Class- because frankly, they are undeniable to even a 007 layman. Michael Fassbender looks so friggin’ Bond, it is unreal. In some ways, this film is more Bond than Quantum of Solace, and there is nothing wrong with that! When Erik wears that fedora, goodness me, I thought he was going to toss it on a hat rack! We didn’t get an opening gun barrel scene in that last Bond film, but Vaughn made damn sure to give his audience a pseudo gun barrel turn. And wow, how about those Bond title sequence styled end credits? Even an early rogue underwater attack on Shaw’s yacht- complete with a detachable submarine- had me thinking some of my favorite Dalton from License to Kill. Though the director and his star leaned more toward Dr. No and Sean Connery, I seriously can see Fassbender as a cross between Dalton and current Bond Daniel Craig. And though he has already shown his chops for the role in previous films (I told you so!), Fassbender’s emotional Bond kinship and Vaughn’s intimate directing ways further proves X-Men: First Class is about people who just happen to be mutants- as opposed to contemporary banal action flicks about car chases and shootouts and little else.
X-Men: First Class naturally wouldn’t be any good if it were the garish sixties look or Austin Powers camp we might expect. However, the hairstyles, fashions for the men and women, and the set décor do indicate just enough of that aforementioned swinging Bond style. Goodness, I’ve also been watching Dark Shadows again recently, and First Class has none of that bad blue and green paisley! Classy lamps, fun artwork, short skirts and tall boots, lots of leather, and some sweet turtlenecks keep it all just right. Though by definition a period piece, this is not so period to put off anyone. The over the top is reserved for mutant gadgetry or fun villainy, and truly, after awhile, I forgot about the 1962 setting until the great use of JFK archival snippets and newsreel split screens reminded me. Yes, Charles says groovy twice, but it is a drunken pick up line and works perfectly in context. The brief period music fits into the club scenes when used- and it isn’t blaring or overwhelming the show. Actually, X-Men: First Class did not give me a headache, and there weren’t many scenes expressly used for action’s sake, coughmichaelbaycough. Some of the concluding battle does look ill choreographed, but what do you expect from new mutants duking it out? Besides, the period fleets and aircraft are too damn sweet. This attention to detail makes First Class genuinely look like a sixties movie, as opposed to some of those modern films ‘made to look old’.
While I’ve had mostly praise outside of a few questionable mutants, I was expecting more flaws in X-Men: First Class. I spoiled myself on all the trailers, clips, and mistaken artwork and viral campaign- but most of that is largely out of context here. There is plenty more in the film that has yet to be seen online or in TV spots. Unfortunately, it seems there were also longer bits or alternate takes used in some of the spots that are not here, and First Class does have a Fellowship of the Ring feeling, as if, well, we’ve only just begun. Hopefully, anything excised will be on the video releases to come. Though justifiably long at 2 hours and 12 minutes, it does seem like there could have more to tell- the conclusion here definitely leaves you yearning for what happens next. Is this a bromance? Is it too gay? Are their both pleasing consistencies and irritating inconsistencies with the original films? Is it too politics of 2011? Well yes and no and absolutely are the answers to all those questions, and First Class still works wonderfully. I am, however, surprised by all the doom and gloom hyperbole saying First Class is a failure for only earning $56 million its opening weekend. In the midst of a recession, First Class has thus far held its own with its primary predecessor- and that is with a very iffy marketing campaign, no fancy higher 3D return, and absolutely no merchandising strategy. The critical reception for First Class has also been mostly praiseworthy, as compared to its most recent precursor X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Is it not better to have both modest success and acclaim? If the team behind First Class had been looking for a fantastical wad with no substance, they would have pursued 3D. The fact that they didn’t shows they are more interested in making a quality film, and amen to that!
For my Friday 11:30 a.m. First Class cinema going experience, about 25 people attended and 5 folks were on cell phones. What then, is the ratio of time and people spent on the phone for a 2-hour movie? There were only a few women and one family with children, mostly it seemed like a bunch of guys cutting school and talking on the phone. For those interested in the trailers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is the required Jim Carrey family plug, but The Green Lantern’s trailer overflows with bad CGI. I could care less about Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon- it garnered a mere shrug from my Dad and a ‘looks messy’- though The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looked good from what you could see. Unfortunately, the teaser was so dang loud and rapid fire in your face that it made itself somewhat unappealing. Rise of the Planet of the Apes looked like a cross between the aforementioned Transformers and Congo, with angry growling apes attacking cars on a bridge, yeah. I do like The Three Musketeers- but in 3D, seriously? Lastly, Immortals looks exactly like 300- replete with fantastical slow motion phalanx and Fassbender’s flying Stelios. I kid you not. Suffice to say, I don’t think there’s anything there I will see in the theater. But I would see First Class again. I did. Twice.
Do you need to be a fan of X-Men to enjoy First Class? Though calling the film ‘outstanding,’ my Father insisted this is not the kind of prequel you can see ahead of the original films. I, however, do think new audiences unaware can be floored all the same. Longtime fans might find a few contradictions, but the stylized charm and performance forgive the question marks here. Those who would normally not consider a cheesy comic book show can also enjoy X-Men: First Class, as it is at least on par with other recently acclaimed and more serious superhero films like The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2. I myself feel its kinship to the lovely heart and soul and nostalgia of the 1978 Superman. With only one f-bomb and some implied sexuality, this PG-13 is also safe for the family and has enough faux history, real emotion, and fine intelligence for the grown ups. Save up and see X-Men: First Class ASAP.