My Ten Cents on: X-Men: First Class

Hello there blogosphere! It’s been a while, but I’m back just in time (or a little late) to catch the 2011 Summer Blockbuster wave, which I believe, along with 2012’s line-up, to be the grandest, most ambitious collection of films that Hollywood has EVER released. and if the likes of Fast Five, Thor, and X-Men: First Class are what we’re going to see over the next couple of months, then this movie season will be (in no exaggeration) utterly epic.

X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the entire X-Men Franchise. This movie follows the bro-mance of Charles Xavier, a mutant with telepathic abilities, and Erik Lensherr, who has control over the powers of magnetism, as they meet and join forces in the face of their adversary, the immensely powerful Sebastian Shaw.

So, due to being both rusty at writing and really excited for this review, I’ll skip any further ado and delve right into X-Men: First Class.

+ Casting and Characters

Allow me to digress a bit into the background of this movie. The original X-Men actually started with Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Angel and Iceman squaring off against Magneto. So its safe to say this isn’t the same origin of everyone’s beloved band of mutants. Unlike Thor, Iron Man, or Captain America, Marvel does not own the movie rights to the X-Men franchise, 20th Century Fox does. That’s why whereas all these other movies have rebooted in order to follow much more strictly the stories of the comic book, X-Men: First Class does it’s own thing. They aren’t hindered by the continuity, and can come up with their own original stories. This kind of freedom from the structure of the comic book continuity could be either a bad thing or a good thing, but I’d have to lean towards the good end on this one.

The first point I’d make in this argument is that of the casting. Unlike say, Thor or Iron Man where they made the lead actors look and act as close as possible to their comic book counterparts (lucking out with both Christ Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr.), X-Men: First Class could basically hire anyone they wanted to in order to fill in the roles, and you know what, they did a pretty good job.

The first thing I’m going to say about the casting is that it is very strategic. They picked people who would appeal to their major demographics. For the ladies, you have the slightly more  sensitive-looking James McAvoy, and the rugged Michael Fassbender, and for the guys, you have absolutely smoking January Jones, and the very beautiful Jennifer Lawrence. couple that with Kevin Bacon for pure unadulterated awesomeness, and you have a winning recipe that will put fannies in the seats. The best part is that many of these actors have acting chops and deliver pretty well on their characters.

This was one of the real strong points of the movie. After the movie, I wasn’t thinking of the characters as: “The one with the psychic abilities, and the one who has control over the forces of magnetism.” I was thinking of them as: “The one who’s fighting for unity between mutants and humans, and the one who’s seeking vengeance.” This goes for all the other characters as well. Rather than differentiating the characters by their skills and power, they actually took the time to have the characters run through their own internal conflicts and, by doing so, defines them as individuals much more than any powers could.

Here’s my prime example. We all know Mortal Kombat. This was the game series that revolutionized the videogame industry by proudly proclaiming: “We may not be the best fighting game out there, but we are definitely the bloodiest.” Anyway, the game spawned more than a few spin-offs, most notable of which were the Mortal Kombat movies. Let’s be honest, while they may have been fun and enjoyable for some, they were in no way good. Now compare that to this new Youtube mini-series called Mortal Kombat Legacy (which deserves its own post). Alright, I know its not a fair comparison, since the shooting’s better, the action’s better and the writing’s better and its all taken more seriously here, however, this really boils down to the philosophy behind how they see the characters.

In the original movies, a lot of the characters come on screen, perform a special trick or move, and then die/disappear. They never were treated (by the film makers and any of the producers, I’ll bet) as anything more than empty shells of killing machines. Then you look at the new take. They show you the character’s motivations, they give them emotions and conflicts, and flesh them out filling the empty shells with a literary character. So now you’re not just looking at a fight going: “Ohhhh nice choreography, stunts and CGI!” but now you’re thinking: “He’s fighting because this person killed his family, such an intense conflict. I hope he wins! Oh, and nice choreography stunts and CGI too!”

X-Men: First Class is a lot of the same way, these characters, through their own little conflicts, are built up so that when the climactic action hits, you feel more for them rather than just staring at the CGI, giving a whole lot more power to the climax as well. The powerful story may have been partly because of the characters and how they were written, but a bigger part had to be the…

+ Story-telling

This movie had so many things going on. I was so surprised they could fit in the different characters’ internal conflicts, the main conflict with Sebastian Shaw, and the larger backdrops of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the human world finding out about mutants, and all in just over 2 hours. This movie could have very easily run the risk of doing too much, but for some reason, it all worked to perfection, with all these small and large conflicts all building towards the same climax and conclusion. You ever heard of the snowball effect, “a snowball rolling down a hill” and so on? Well this movie’s plot structure was like several snowballs all rolling down the hill, and merging to form a mega-snowball. It gave the story so much more impact.

With so many things happening within such a short time, the movie did a brilliant job of pacing itself. Yes, I will say it was a little quick, and some cool parts were over in the blink of an eye, but at the end of the day, at no point did I yawn or look away. The movie never failed to engage me, always having the events come one after another. It was two hours of non-stop movement plot-wise, and no scene ever felt wasted. Every shot had a purpose in this film.

One of my favorite literary tools is called Chekhov’s Gun. The tool was developed after a quote from the writer Anton Chekhov himself. To paraphrase, Chekhov said that: “if you introduced a gun by the first act, it had better go off by the end.” This is a cliche often used in Hollywood, and in comparison to some of the other cliches, this one’s been used pretty well. This movie is no exception. A lot of elements and themes in this movie do recur, and they all have importance. There aren’t any random scenes, or if any they are negligible.

Also, rather than jumping from one action sequence to another, this movie spends much more time with character interactions, being driven more by the dialogue and less by the action. The narrative worked in such a way that even if these people didn’t have powers, the plot, and many of its arguments on the acceptance or rejection of the minorities in society, would still be very effective (though a lot less flashy). It had a lot of wit, with a few strategic jokes and cameos, and these, plus the story were the major strength of the movie.

There are fewer things I love to see than a solid and united body of work. I love being so absorbed in a film that I forget I’m watching a movie. This movie did that in spades.

+ Use of CGI

One thing I loved about this movie is that it never went overboard. I guess this is an offshoot of the fact that the movie was a lot more dialogue-driven and narrative-based, but it does deserve commendation. At least it didn’t have Gambit slamming his stick on a ground to unnecessarily cause the entire alley (windows and loose objects included) to blow up, or doing random, essentially show-off somersaults as seen in this re-edited clip from X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Now, this new movie, while having some major computer generated scenes, never took anything too far. Xavier‘s powers were mostly unseen, Mystique‘s use of transformation was always done with a purpose… Basically, the movie used the CG to supplement the story, not to show off. Sure there were a couple of flashy moments, at the end of the day, it is still an X-Men film, but compared X-2, X-3: The Last Stand, and Wolverine, this movie grounded itself and really focused its attention in enriching the story. In the other X-Men films, you can count so many times where they would have a scene where some mutant or other is simply there to show off a power or two and never appear again. I wouldn’t blame those movies for doing that, it is the first thing a person would think of if they were given a multi-million dollar budget to shoot an X-Men movie, but I will praise the filmmakers of X-Men: First Class (a lot) for not going down the same path.

+ Sebastian Shaw/Kevin Bacon

I know I already praised the cast earlier in this review. But special credit for the success of this movie must go to the villain. Every fantastic action/superhero flick needs to have a great villain in order to be successful. You can have a good movie with a crappy villain, but rarely can you have an amazing one. Sebastian Shaw is a mutant with the power to absorb kinetic energy. Which means, every time you hit him, shoot him, or try and blow him up, he’ll become even stronger. That makes him pretty bad-ass, as well as very difficult to defeat. I absolutely love movies that genuinely make me question how the heroes are going to win. I mean, you know, given the fact that Charles Xavier and Magneto are around in the other movies, that they won the fight in this movie. If you think I’m spoiling anything, you should get out more often.

Kevin Bacon's got swag.

My point is, I just love when the villain makes me doubt the outcome, and when the time comes and they actually defeat him in a way that makes it seem plausible. Too many times, I’ve seen movies where the villains do some stupid things that you would see from the 60’s Batman TV show, and you wonder why they’d do that. They even made fun of this cliche in Austin Powers, when Dr. Evil, after capturing Austin Powers, opts to put him “in an easily escapable situation involving an overly-elaborate  and exotic death.”

This movie makes no such mistake. The villain is incredibly powerful, and his comeuppance is pretty plausible.

The second point is, as I made earlier, Kevin Bacon is awesome. He brings such a smug bravado, charisma and power to the role that his delivery and his powers merge together to create a very menacing enemy. He pulls off the powerful, cunning persona, which makes it easy to understand why people would fear and follow him. Not to mention that he stole the screen every time he appeared.

+ Set

Love the costumes

I want my room to look like this.

very 60's Sci-Fi

Its a beautiful day... FOR WAR!

This movie, at times had brilliant sets. I mean there were moments where they took the 60’s set design and made it look amazing. Most of these revolved around the plush rooms of Sebastian Shaw. I liked how some of the scenes looked and how they were shot, and also, Kevin Bacon’s costumes were absolutely fantastic. I loved the 60’s vibe when it was there.  The thing about this film was that when it wanted to be sci-fi, it did, when it wanted to be wartime, it did, and when it wanted to be 60’s high society, it did. It was too bad that…

– The vibe was inconsistent

There are times when I have to be reminded that this took place in the 60’s. I guess in trying to show so many different sides of the 60’s as I mentioned above, it kind of failed at showing us a whole picture. Sometimes, when you show too many sides of an object, people lose perspective as to its shape, if you know what I mean. This movie got caught up in trying to give us the entire 1960’s experience that it failed to make it authentic.

The actors were great in their own rights, especially in delivering emotions, but many of them didn’t draw inspiration from the era of the 60’s. They talk like people who’re up and running now, and it would take a video of JFK, or seeing some guys in horn-rimmed glasses, and turtle-necks to remind myself that I was watching a movie set in the 60’s. This was one blip for me and a mark that I would have loved to have been improved. I wish they spent a bit more time making everything look more authentic. I mean, you could have had people dressed up along the lines of Catch Me If You Can. You know, maybe more girls could have had the poofy hair, they could have used dialogue and terms that fit the popular culture of the day, and the could have set up some typical 60’s locations with typical 60’s vehicles. A lot of the old vehicles and locations shown here are things and places that looks the same now. This is my biggest criticism with this movie. Despite some great 60’s sets and locations, it didn’t give the movies the 60’s twang I was looking for. I guess with so much going on, its one of the smaller details, but I really would have loved to have felt like going in through a time machine at the theater.

– Continuity

If it is true that this is the prequel to the other X-Men movies, it doesn’t make too much sense. If Mystique and Professor X met in first class, why didn’t they recognize each other later. Why is it that some people seem to have aged more and others less? How could Emma Frost be an extremely hot, devious January Jones, when she’s an innocent teenager in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine story, which takes place roughly 10 years later, where Professor X appears having aged 40 years between the 1970’s plot and the 1960’s setting of X-Men: First Class. Now I know this is a bit knit-picking, but if you’re going to market it as part of the same franchise, you should keep the movies logical. I mean, how would Harry Potter fans feel, if they made a prequel where it turns out that Hagrid and Voldemort were half-brothers or something. Its kind of like that. One of those nagging problems that don’t harm the movie itself, but make it a bit confusing for a fan.

– A couple other cliches

With the 60’s feel, they do make funny references, by inserting a few stereotypical cliche’s about women and minorities in the movie. I get what they were trying to do. They were trying to follow some of the formulaic things that happened in 60’s movies, but it just came off as cliche’s, primarily because there are a lot of other movies that still use those cliches. I won’t tell you much about this, try and spot them on your own. (clue, one has to do with my picture up in the Casting and Character section)

And that’s about all the bad things I can say about that.

My Cent’s Worth: 9/10

Rotten Tomatoes gave X-Men: First Class an 87% rating of fresh. Does it deserve it? Yes. Pretty much. The depth of this movie, and the amount of stuff going on in both the foreground and background make this a movie that I would recommend watching more than once. This is how you do a superhero flick, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe a couple of hardcore comic geeks will disagree with me, but I so happen to be a movie geek first, and as a movie geek, this one blew away my expectations and has set the bar for super hero movies in the future.

I cannot wait for the sequel.

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Posted on June 7, 2011, in Film Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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