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X-Men: First Class - Review

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X-Men: First Class

I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of the X-Men. Their powers always seemed a bit too fantastical, the universe a bit too large, and, let's face it, their costumes a bit too silly. While the first two X-Men films were decently good entertainment, the second the series was handed off to Brett Ratner, it all went to hell. First the convoluted, annoying (they killed Cyclops!) third installment, than the painful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (did anyone else find the half-finished leak better than the finished product?). Needless to say, I wasn't expecting this film to be much better - despite the casting of Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and the hiring of Kick-Ass helmer Matthew Vaughan.

I'm happy to report that for the most part, I was wrong. The new film doesn't only reinvigorate the franchise, it feels completely separated from the first three and the half-baked Origins story. Mid-way through the film, it almost feels as if the creators are signaling to the audience "don't worry... we're making sure this one isn't crap." (Hint: It involves a fan favorite).

The plot is simple and fun. Charles Xavier (played well by James McAvoy), with the help of the US Government, assembles a team of mutants including Beast (Nicholas Hoult, who will always be the kid from About a Boy to me), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and finally, the vengeance seeking holocaust survivor Erik/Magneto (understated, but great performance from Michael Fassbender). Together, they prepare as the evil Shaw (Kevin Bacon) attempts to provoke war between the Soviets and the United States in order to lead the human race to extinction, leaving just the superior mutants.

What this movie succeeds in doing that the previous two X-Men installments failed miserably at was keeping it grounded and believable. Sure, a skimpily clothed January Jones can turn into crystal, and an entire nuclear submarine can be pulled out of the water every once in a while, but between those moments is real character development. Each character, especially Erik, is made sympathetic and real - you believe the arc that Erik is taken on. Charles Xavier is less fleshed out, and for the most part presents an enjoyable foil for Erik, but his character too has believable backing.

The tone is much more in line with the time period it represents - there is lots of humor sprinkled in with the drama, and in the middle half of the film, you may find yourself laughing more than being sucked in with the drama. Matthew Vaughan has proved adept at handling humor and action, and puts that to work here. Luckily, the humor doesn't detract from the drama in the same way it did in, say, X-Men: The Last Stand ("I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!").

The main fault of the film is lack of nuance. While the character development is there, and it is well done - it is all too explicit. Erik is at the losing end of this scriptwriting parable: whenever the movie wants to make a point about his character, it comes off predictable, cliche, and unsubtle. The film reminds us again and again of his history as a holocaust survivor - the Nazi coin, the number tattoo - even flashbacks. When important character moments hinge on his knowledge, the film isn't satisfied to tell us in subtext what the characters are thinking - it must be yelled REALLY LOUDLY. I grimaced as Erik screamed "Never Again!" as he fought off the enemy. At the end of it all, as good as the movie was, it never got to the point where it could be considered a great film. It had no layers, nothing beneath the immediate plot and characters laid out simply for us like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces lined up, just needing to be pushed in. That's what makes X-Men: First Class a great comic book movie - instead of being able to elevate itself to being a great movie in its own right, like The Dark Knight did. There are great scenes, great lines, and great moments; but the moments between can often seem perfunctory, and sometimes cringe-worthy. When Charles Xavier mentions the group being "G-Men without the G," I hoped they've leave it there. But alas, Rose Byrne (continuing her movement up the "what-her-name" totem pole one movie at a time) must pipe in "Like... X-Men."

I really enjoyed the movie. It was fun, exciting, and intense. The characters were strong and believable, the writing good. It felt so close to truly being a great movie, which makes it more frustrating when it backs away and is satisfied with doing some things the easy way. It may be that my expectations were too high, and they should have been lower given the last two attempts to bring the X-Men to screen. I'll be sure to fix that next time by re-watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Actually, after thinking about that again, this movie was pretty damn great.


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