MindFood: ‘X-Men: First Class’ Surprises

X-Men: First Class posterEvery summer there are a handful of movies that you can’t help but preemptively geek out over. Balls-out blockbusters like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Captain America are the kind of big screen beacons we need during the cold and dry first few months of the year when the only kind of escapist action movies out are dreck like Priest, Season of the Witch and Sucker Punch. And every summer those balls-out blockbusters end up disappointing in one way or another, so every year we’ve got to trim down the number of movies we think are actually going to stand the test of time. Of this summer’s box office crop, X-Men: First Class fell into the category of blockbusters I’d completely written off.

Oh how wrong I was.

Not counting films on the festival circuit, X-Men: First Class is the first movie this year that I’d truly consider a must-see movie. Oh, I don’t think it’s flawless. It’s a little cheesy at times, it’s a little long, and January Jones is a real bore as Emma Frost, but those three complaints are minor compared to the film at large, which is a truly character-driven, kick-ass reboot of a downhill franchise that reminds we what it’s like to love a superhero movie again. So if you, like I had, have written off X-Men: First Class, here’s why you need to see it this weekend.

The Actors

One of the most consistent compliments I heard about Thor was how much it showcased Chris Hemsworth as an A-list leading man. And while I don’t disagree with that – the man is pure charisma – Michael Fassbender as Magneto makes Hemsworth look like a fan auditioning for the role of a superhero. This isn’t a case of someone fitting the role very well, this is a case of someone being the role completely. Fassbender isn’t playing a mutant holocaust survivor our for revenge, he is a mutant holocaust survivor. It’s one of those rare performances that is so perfect you simply cannot picture anyone else doing it justice. I can picture other people as Thor or Batman or Harry Potter, but Fassbender’s performance here is so singular that no one else can compete. If there is any one reason to see this movie, it’s Fassbender.

But what makes X-Men: First Class even better is that, though Fassbender may steal the show at every turn, it hardly falls flat without him. James McAvoy is great as a young, groovy version of Professor X that is very, very different from Patrick Stewart’s take. Jennifer Lawrence is solid and alluring as Mystique and Kevin Bacon is killer as the film’s villain, Sebastian Shaw. The only weak point acting-wise is January Jones, an actress who has so little on-screen personality a conspiracy theorist might assume that Fassbender is some kind of acting vampire that sucked her life dry before each take. But she’s hardly a main character, so it’s no big loss. Plus, a batch of very cool character actors pop up throughout the flick, each bringing an always-welcome “Woah, I had no idea that guy was in this movie!” feeling.

A scene from Fox's X-Men: First Class

The Setting

I don’t know why I wasn’t instantly excited about a period piece X-Men movie. I certainly should have been, but there was just something about it that seemed like it came with a hidden asterisk due to memories of other period piece hero flicks like The Phantom and The Shadow, but damned if Vaughn and company don’t pull it off perfectly here. The setting isn’t played purely for nostalgia or anything like that, it’s entirely contextual. It has to do with a time of persecution, of feeling isolated and different; a time when the scientific breakthroughs were as big as our government’s covert operations. It’s a perfect fit for the X-Men.

It’s also an admirable decision just because it’s such a risky move for Fox. The current generation of 13 year-old’s aren’t going to remember much about the ‘60s. Their movies and TV shows aren’t still obsessed with the cold war the same way they were twenty years ago. So for Fox to try to make that time period relevant again in a big way is pretty damned cool in my book.

The Action

One of the reasons I wasn’t so excited for X-Men: First Class was because of how disappointed I was with director Matthew Vaughn’s last crack at making a comic book movie, Kick-Ass. My failing there was that I should have remembered that the movie overall may have been a let down, but at least the action was awesome. I’m happy to say that Vaughn keeps refining his action chops with each subsequent film.

What makes the action sequences here so great is that they strike an ideal balance between how the characters would behave and what’s going to make audiences go nuts. The inability to strike that balance is where a lot of movies suffer. When you just try to devise things that are going to make for big spectacle, you get movies like Transformers and the last couple of Pirates movies. And as cool and elaborate as some of those set pieces can be, most of that action is hollow and meaningless because it all feels so inorganic. That’s not the case with First Class, which always stays on top of its game when it comes to delivering bad-ass moments that don’t feel forced at all.

A scene from Fox's X-Men: First Class