Thursday, June 16, 2011

'X-Men: First Class' was Surprisingly Solid

My experience with X-Men: First Class is probably going to sound like a lot of other people's. I was unbelievably skeptical of the film's premise, the characters they chose to fill out the team's roster, and the limited amount of time the filmmakers had to shoot it in. Lo and behold, it turned out to be one of the better entries in the X-Men series - and one of the most satisfying films I've seen all summer.


See - as much as I liked the movie, there's one aspect of it I just can't seem to make peace with. First Class attempts to simultaneously serve as a prequel to the other X-Men movies as well as a full-on reboot of the franchise. It never truly commits to being either one, though - and that strikes me as a really baffling decision. Take a look at the film's IMDb page and you'll see scores of passionate fans trying to convince everyone else that it's one or the other. They're all wrong. And they're all right. That's the point. You can present a strong case for either scenario and I just don't get it. Were they trying to play it safe in case it worked better as one instead of the other?

There are two types of X-Men fans who are going to be a little upset with the changes they've made to the mythology here. The first group is comprised of those who are well-versed in the comic book source material. See, in the X-Men comics the "first class" is famously made up of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Marvel Girl, and Iceman. They're all recruited by Professor Charles Xavier and the first issue pits them against a fascinating character who would go on to become their most recognizable nemesis - Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto.

Part of the reason X-Men has remained so popular and relevant since its introduction in 1963 is the relationship between Professor X and Magneto. One of the main underlying themes in X-Men is the struggle that mutants face when it comes to being accepted by society at large. It's an interesting parable to the civil rights movement - with Charles as a stand-in for Martin Luther King and Magneto taking the Malcolm X role.

First Class
preserves that core idea and James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Lehnsherr are hands-down the best parts of the film. However, that's essentially as far as the filmmakers go when it comes to respecting the source material. They make significant changes to the actual origins of both characters, how (and when) they meet, and probably most controversially - to the team of titular characters.

Because First Class masquerades itself as a pseudo-prequel, they can't use the original line-up of X-Men (except for Beast), because they've already appeared in the other films. Since this is a period piece that takes place in the 1960s against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, their inclusion wouldn't make an iota of sense.

So instead we get C-list replacements like Havok (who's actually the younger brother of Cyclops in the comics), Banshee, and Darwin. They also made the slightly unusual decision to have Mystique be Xavier's foster sister and one of the first members of the team. Basically, it makes an absolute mess of the established X-Men mythology and bears almost no resemblance to the series of First Class comics it was originally supposed to be based on.

Frankly, I'm not sure the film commits any bigger sins than the other X-Men movies in this regard. They're all guilty of changing character's ages, origins, appearances, powers, etc. And they all do a pretty exceptional job of completely mucking up the comic's timeline of events. However, I can understand how completely revamping this chapter of the team's saga would be a little upsetting to a hardcore fan.

The second group that's going to be upset by the changes they've made are fans of the previous films who appreciate continuity - and seeing characters they recognize brought to life. If you've never picked up an X-Men comic, you probably at least know who some of the major characters are. Even my mom could identify Wolverine. Not only does First Class feature a bunch of people you've never heard of, it doesn't even pretend to care about contradicting events established earlier in the series. It ranges from minor details like Xavier telling Wolverine that he met Magneto when he was 17 (he doesn't) or that they built Cerebro together (they don't) to fairly major alterations like when Xavier loses his ability to walk - a seemingly superfluous change that actually instantly throws X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine out of continuity (which may not be such a bad thing, all things considered).

Ssshhh... let's pretend this never happened.

The casual viewer probably won't care (or even notice) many of these changes, but anyone with more than a passing investment in these films is likely going to be confused by these choices. Which brings me right back to my original problem - both groups would have been better served by a film that wiped the slate clean and started from scratch. The filmmakers could have used the original line-up of X-Men and there would be no confusion regarding First Class' connection to the other films.

In fact, the stretches where the film takes a confident and rather brazen approach to breaking new ground are easily its best. Which is what made it so distracting when they'd randomly throw in a cameo or some other reference to the previous X-Men movies. These were moments that really didn't add anything to the story and immediately reminded me that the film was trying to straddle the fence instead of deciding which side it really wanted to be on. I get it - the brief appearances from some familiar faces were fun, little moments where they got to wink at the audience - but take them out and it has absolutely no effect on the story whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy X-Men: First Class  - and some would argue (and I'd agree) that it's more important that it function as a good movie rather than a faithful adaptation. I just can't help but feel that it could have been both. The focus is firmly on Charles and Erik so the fact that the actual X-Men are made up of lesser-known characters isn't as huge a letdown as I expected it to be - but there's no denying that I would have been a lot more interested in watching Charles training Scott, Jean, and Bobby and seeing them all suit up for the first time.

My other problems with First Class probably have a lot to do with its rushed production. There's quite a bit of hokey dialogue and a few questionable line readings - but overall, the bits that work really work. And the score by Henry Jackman is probably my favorite of the entire series. I also liked the 60s setting, but was disappointed that they didn't really make any mention of the civil rights movement. Instead, they recycled a subplot from X3 about curing mutation which struck me as incredibly redundant.

I understand that Bryan Singer's X-Men films introduced the idea that these characters also worked as a metaphor for gay rights and I think he managed to do that with a sense of grace and subtlety that later entries like The Last Stand tried to mimic, but couldn't. They instead came off as heavy-handed and obvious. I feel the same way about First Class' "Mutant & Proud" moments. I'm sorry, I like the message - but I think the way its handled is too on the nose. As is the close-up of the team's only African-American member when Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) talks about enslavement. Don't let the audience connect the dots themselves - make sure we know exactly what you're getting at.

I suspect that director Matthew Vaughn was more interested in revamping the X-Men franchise, but that there were others involved who wanted to play it safe just in case things didn't work out. I think the climax makes this incredibly obvious. The evolution and eventual collapse of Charles and Erik's relationship could easily have encompassed three films. First Class almost does a disservice to the incredible performances by McAvoy and Fassbender by trying to cram their entire history into one film. By the time the credits roll, all of the characters have to be well on their way to where we find them at the beginning of the first X-Men - just in case First Class doesn't work as a reboot. This really robs the other X-Men movies of their best aspect - the sense that Charles and Erik had a long and complicated history together - that these two men shared a unique a bond, despite their opposing viewpoints. It would have meant so much more if their journey together had been given the time it deserved. One film just really isn't enough.

In spite of a few missteps and missed opportunities, I think that First Class is still the best X-Men movie since X2: X-Men United. For me, it's on par with the first film. Both have a great deal of thematic depth to them and a lot of really interesting subtext for a superhero film, but there are certain areas where they fall short that prevent them from being great. And that's really too bad - because First Class almost was.



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