Thursday, 2 June 2011

Comics Vanguard Reviews X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

It’s reasonably well known that X-Men First Class was rushed into production by FOX as both a way for them to keep their rights over the property and a way to combat Marvel Studios’ recent domination of the superhero movie genre. But with Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughan on the project, there was some hope that the project would turn out well. The two have been on a brilliant run of form recently, turning Kick-Ass and Stardust into two smartly-realised films, which played off the strengths of their respective comics and satisfying audiences. Kick-Ass was as stupid as the comic, but funnier. Stardust took out some of the more left-field bits and made the story more cohesive. X-Men First Class mixes the comics together with the previous three X-Men movies, and goes nowhere with them.

Let’s deal with the good bits first, because we don’t like focusing on negatives and the film only just falls apart. The casting is generally great. The new students all have a strong reading on their characters, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are superb in their roles as Charles Xavier and Magneto. Fassbender in particular is revelatory, stealing every scene he’s in with his, ahem, magnetic glare. If the movie had focused entirely on these characters and thrown in a random villain at the end, we’d be dealing with the best X-Men film so far. Rose Byrne is underused as Moira MacTaggert, the woman who helps form the X-Men, so her character doesn’t get the chance to develop anywhere. However, she’s such a good actress that she almost glues together a personality for her character. On the other hand, the villains are mainly awful. Kevin Bacon, as Sebastian Shaw, is great – particularly in an opening sequence which seems to mirror the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s equally flawed ‘Inglorious Basterds’. But January Jones seems to be around solely as eye-candy. She gets a few good lines, but delivers them poorly. For all that Emma Frost was anticipated, this film actively weakens her, and it’s unlikely new fans will be racing to buy comics about her. Azrael and… Arclight? (we've been told this is actually Riptide) as the two minions of Shaw, are barely anything. They appear, use their powers, then wander off again. It’s a shame, but these three characters are a drag on the film.

And this is the main flaw of the film. Instead of focusing on the first class and giving us an origin story not just for them, but for the X-Men as a whole; we instead are introduced to them via montage and watch them develop their powers via montage. They are an afterthought to the setting, which eclipses everything else in the story. The film, as you will know, is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We get enough cameos from JFK to remind us of the era, but the film is also keen on giving us excessive scenes with Russians, Americans, and various other factions discussing the war. It works as a backdrop, but the decision to make it a forefront for everything else detracts from the film. The set designs look great, but the film really could’ve left the setting to speak for itself. Bacon appears too often, and too many sequences away from the first class make the film seem stretched and thin. It would’ve been great to see more of the Mystique/Xavier/Magneto relationship, because that’s the strongest work in the film. Instead we have to deal with army officers discussing wartime tactics at length.

The time period means that the inclusion of Darwin and Angel Salvador as members of the first class brings up an interesting story beat: minorities weren’t exactly well-treated at this time. Instead of anything on that, however, the two black characters in the film are taken out of the story – once more, the undercurrent of racial tension which keeps strong black characters from the comics mainstream seeps into the film. And considering the main script came from Jane Goldman, the film is surprisingly demeaning to women. Emma Frost and Mystique are both ogled at length by the camera – and even Rose Byrne is put into lingerie at one point. There’s a bizarre feeling about this film, which seems to be appealing to the worst of fans at the same time as claiming to be a grown-up, serious superhero film. Wolverine’s cameo – which happens – is spectacularly misjudged. The five minutes after he appears are drowned out as you think ‘did he really just say that?’

The special effects look lovely, and the score is fantastic. Apart from one moment when they sue a music cue from a Cee-Lo Green song, the music is rousing, stirring and of the era. It’s bang on the mark. However, the script is far too on-the-nose. When the term ‘slavery’ is mentioned the camera immediately snaps onto Darwin’s face. When the script tries to put in metaphor or allegory, the staging undermines it immediately. With a few more months of prep time, these problems could’ve been ironed out. As it is, the film betrays its rushed nature. If we’re going to get a second film, as hinted at, then here’s hoping the filmmakers stop putting so much into so little space. McAvoy and Fassbender are brilliant actors – if the film had given them more to do, and focused more on the idea of raising kids in a world which prejudices against them, then this would easily have been the best film of the franchise. What we have instead is a half-realised movie which flits between X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins in terms of quality.

A massive shame.

1 comment:

proddo55 said...

Thanks for the review, Steve. I'm going to see it, but I am not as excited. Btw, it's Fox, not Sony, who distributed this movie.