Friday, June 3, 2011


Ever since director Bryan Singer left the Mutants behind, the X-MEN franchise has been coughing up blood. His outstanding X2 was followed up by the decent-but-joyless X3, followed by the dismal WOLVERINE spinoff. In X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, Singer dons the producer hat and brings the franchise back to its literal roots. With a young and eager director in the form of Matthew Vaughn, and an equally young and eager cast, FIRST CLASS gets at least an A for effort.

After watching his mother get shot dead by Nazi opportunist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) goes on a lifelong path of vengeance. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and his adapted sister Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) are leading a life of privilege before being recruited by CIA agent Moira (Rose Byrne) to help prevent WWIII courtesy of Shaw’s wheeling and dealing with the U.S. and USSR militaries. Xavier and Lensherr cross paths, and despite their different ideals, join forces to prevent Shaw’s orchestration of the Cuban Missile Crisis while recruiting other mutants to their cause.

FIRST CLASS begins strongly; utilizing Singer’s powerful Nazi-occupied Poland sequence from X1 to set the stage for Erik/Magneto’s lifelong vengeance mission. Xavier’s origins are a little less defined, but his character eventually develops. In the early goings, the film strives upon the parallel courses the two men take before their paths collide, and when the two of them are together, lightly clashing their ideals, the film is at its best.

Where things stumble a bit is the massive amount of juxtaposition. Once scene sets up another, which sets up another, which sets up another. By the midway point one has to begin praying for someone to punch someone in the face already. Things get bogged down by the many, many, many subplots concerning the kid-mutant characters. It’s a noble effort, as the kids can’t just be there to fill space, but it feels disappointing when the focus goes away from the Xavier/Magneto story. With that lack of focus, along with some clunky dialogue, there is a major disconnect.

Matthew Vaughn, who made magic happen in his whimsical STARDUST, feels absent here. While he gets great performances out of his actors, whatever direction he did with the camera is insignificant. Everything is plainly shot and cut, with little to pop the eyes out. The action scenes are CGI heavy, and the lack of practical effects and actual stunts is noticeable as there is no real feeling of pending doom.

Acting is actually pretty terrific. Fassbender is the real star of the show. His tortured soul is nailed with the just the right depth. McAvoy comes across with just the right amount of wisdom balanced by youthful arrogance. Both men seem to separate their performances from their predecessors, and it’s a bit unclear if that was done to push their youthful age or to separate FIRST CLASS from the other X films. Bacon, while doing a workman-like job as always, feels badly miscast as the villain; but then again, his Bond-esque “soon I will take over the world” evil plot carries absolutely no weight or threat. Even X3 offered something for people to be scared of for Christ’s sake.

The film is loaded with mutants from the X-MEN comic universe, and there seems to be a lot of winks-and-nods that only fans of the source material would get. Newcomers to the franchise may feel a bit lost, as the true roots of the mutation is merely touched upon. Just like the STAR WARS prequels, there are lot of strong seeds planted in FIRST CLASS that eventually sprout up in X1 and X2.

And the one cameo is the greatest scene ever filmed in an X-MEN movie.

The finale, while very good and powerful, flies in the face of and breaks continuity with the established X-MEN films and their universe. Certain characters seem to hit points in their development way too early; events that feel like they would have been better off reserved for future films. However, with no such thing as a guaranteed sequel, it’s understandable that Vaughn/Singer would cram everything into one film. What’s not understandable is whether or not FIRST CLASS is to serve as a true prequel or an outright reboot to wipe the slate clean; certain things fit, others don’t. That sort of imbalance, along with a lack of focus, messes up the vibe. Singer’s return and touch is present, and just enough to be buoyant. This “class” gets a passing grade, if a C+ is considered good.


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