X-Men: First Class ReviewA movie review article by: Danny Djeljosevic & Rafael Gaitan
Danny Djeljosevic: How surprised are you that there's a great X-Men film? Because I'm stunned.
Rafael Gaitan: My expectations were in a bit of a toss-up. You know my feelings towards X-Men: The Last Stand -- it should be shot in its face, then rounded up and thrown in a camp.
Danny: I'm comfortable enough to realize that none of the X-Men films are anywhere perfect, even though I enjoy them to varying degrees and in varying degrees of sincerity. The original X-Men feels like a TV movie that accidentally got put on celluloid and sent to theatres; X2: X-Men United is pretty good but clearly suffers from its low budget; X-Men: The Last Stand at least has a better scope than the first X-Men, that's all I'll say about that. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, is the best comedy of 2009 -- and that year gave us Funny People and The Lovely Bones!
So, yeah, not a great track record. But I was sold on First Class the moment word got out that it was a period piece. It's like Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman set out to make a movie.
Rafael: I was awed as a teenager that they even made those first two movies, and that led me to relish them more so than I should have. When we rewatched X2 a few months ago, those were my exact feelings -- this could have been so much better if the studio had more faith in it -- but it was still a solid movie. I had faith in First Class when Matthew Vaughn came on board. Once I found out it was set in the 1960s, though, I was fully onboard.
Danny: It's just so ballsy and indicative of someone actually trying to put effort when all they needed were some costumes and CGI. Especially in a world where Marvel has an active hand in producing their own Marvel films -- here comes something that Marvel wasn't involved in that ends up making Thor look wrongheaded and misguided.
Rafael: While Thor had its #HAMMEResque moments, it has that long stretch where the Odinson acts like a Looney Tune.
Speaking of X-Men SNOREigins, I'm so glad there's no "adamantium bullet" moment in this film. It hits every mark it needs to in bringing the story to the status quo, but in a way that's meticulous and plotted -- which is so rarely seen in movies these days. Beast has to be blue and Xavier has to be paralyzed by film's end, but we're never anticipating it because we're too engrossed in seeing if McCoy will cure himself or if Xavier's students will survive their first outing -- there's a great sense of legitimate immediacy and danger!
Danny: The lack of outright stupid prequelism speaks volumes as far as the effort put into X-Men: First Class. Eventually Professor X is going to end up in a wheelchair and there's going to be a giant rift between him and Magneto, but getting to that point is not the sole purpose of the film.
Rafael: It reminded me a bit of Batman Begins, actually, in that I admired the ability to show the stems of the technology. It makes sense that Xavier wouldn't just conjure up this device to track mutants or these costumes or this mansion by himself -- he needed a prototype.
Danny: And it doesn't feel like cheap George Lucasism, where we have to be told just how Indy got his scar or who actually built C-3PO, like a zookeeper throwing steaks to the lions. Mostly, the film is concerned with telling a swingin' sci-spy movie using one of Marvel's most lucrative properties -- one where we happen to learn where Cerebro came from in the process.
Rafael: I love, love, love that the X-Men essentially are a covert CIA project -- that's some wonderful Metal Gear shit right there. Plus, Rose Byrne in her Meryl outfit -- yum.
Danny: What this film really nails is the Professor X/Magneto relationship, developing two characters that too easily become philosophical figureheads as opposed to actual characters -- a development bolstered by some amazing performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.
Rafael: Those actors grab and consume every beat, every necessary step. It's rare to see that caliber of performance in most films, but especially in comic book fare. The scene where Xavier taps into Magneto's memory to help him move the satellite could easily have descended into schlock, but the pain Fassbender conveys and McAvoy reflects is heartaching. Probably my favorite scene in the movie, were I the emotional type (I AM), and this is in a movie that has jets and firing solutions!
Danny: Fassbender is especially great when gets to pull a one-man Inglourious Basterds for the first, like, half-hour of the film.
Rafael: When (the now-defunct) X-Men SNOREigins: Magneto was first announced, I didn't know what I would expect, but after seeing this flick, I'd totes pay to see that. Especially if it's Michael Fassbender deading Nazis -- how dope was that scene in Argentina when he throws the knife and hails it back?!
Danny: The Professor X/Magneto dynamic gets a great additional dimension in this film by painting Xavier as someone who still can't look past appearances. He's not a complete messianic good guy like how he's often painted in the comics. It seems like Professor X and Beast have a similar flaw in being unable to fully embrace physical mutations. On the other hand, Magneto is a mutant supremacist, but he appreciates the freaks of the world for who they are. It's a great bit of dramatic irony in the Merry Marvel Tradition.
Rafael: YES. I believe Mystque has the most success in highlighting that -- Charles is the kind that passes, and he's young and egotistical! His transformation through the film is earned, from only caring about spitting game and getting laid to wanting to legitimately better both human and mutantkind. It's refreshing to see Xavier wasn't portrayed as a wheelchair-bound Christ -- it's important to be able to empathize with him.
Danny: They take a long time to get to the X-Men proper, and I seriously could have waited the whole film because the Xavier and Magneto are so compelling on their own.
Rafael: I gotta say, I think the reason I loved First Class was because it was a movie about the X-Men, and not an X-Men movie, if that makes sense? They were treated like actual characters, developed and explored, without succumbing too much to the "wink at the fans" that these movies easily get trapped in. We learn what we need to from watching, and there is a level of reward for prior knowledge, but it never feels like you would need to be an (e)Xpert to get it. It's a movie about kids with cool powers that ward off the Cold War -- 'nuff said!
Danny: I love the characters they decided to use. Save Beast and the principals, none of these mutants are particularly major. You have second-tier characters like Havok and Banshee, recent creations like Ed Brubaker's Darwin and Grant Morrison's Angel Salvadore, and then characters like Azazel and Riptide who were clearly chosen because they have fun powers. The comics seem to depend on having Wolverine in their ranks at all times, but the films show that you don't need Hugh Jackman to make a ripping good X-Men film.
Rafael: My X-knowledge is somewhat limited, but I was familiar enough to not be thrown off by some of the less-common cast. While I did know Angel from Morrison's run, I was unaware of Darwin or Azazel or Tornadofist, though I reasonably assumed they were characters I hadn't encountered yet. It was great to see mutants chosen for their powers and their abilities to fit into the story and not necessarily for recognizability.
Danny: A lot of the other mutants get short-changed, though. While Beast and Mystique get a decent amount of screentime to give some great supporting thematic stuff to the film, pretty much everyone else gets glossed over a bit. At least the X-Kids get a scene where they goof off and show their powers to one another -- that was a cute bit of economical character development.
Rafael: I felt that most of them got a fair shake. They could have spent a touch more time on them, but that little scene alone said enough to me. I could've used a touch more, but I felt like I knew enough about the kids. Too much more might have hurt the pace and felt like padding.
Danny: They show up just a bit too late for us to care about the ones that get killed off or end up switching sides. Mostly I'm talking about Darwin and Angel, who make big moves real early despite only being on screen for a few minutes. Angel in particular strikes me as a failure -- apparently if you change sides you lose all personality? Look at Pyro in X2 -- his turn is fairly well written into the film. Sure, it's telegraphed (he is Pyro, after all), but it's also developed enough so it means something by the end.
Rafael: Personally, I think Angel kinda started flat and just stayed that way -- her scene with Magneto and Xavier was cute and provided a nice touch of levity, but ultimately she hardly affects the movie until that final setpiece. It feels like she's just there and then WHOOP -- antagonist for Banshee!
Danny: When it comes to the villains, the film spends no time fleshing out Shaw's underlings. I'm not saying I need a soliloquy or a scene where Riptide takes Azazel aside and wonders if Shaw's plan will work -- I just need some indication of why I should be watching these guys on screen. X-Men: The Last Stand showed us the pitfalls of using characters like chess pieces.
Rafael: I will say the one-sided underlings didn't bug me, but more than likely it was because I've come to accept gooning as a necessity. We had our moments of pathos seeing Angel and Mystique switch sides, so I can accept Azazel and Tornadofist as just pure bad dudes.
Danny: It's not so much that I want pathos, but I would like a few character traits so I just know who these guys are. Snazzy suits aren't quite enough for me. I'm hoping X-Men: Second Class doesn't go the same route, because I think Magneto's followers should be just as passionate about their cause as Xavier's.
Speaking of villains, even though Emma Frost gets a lot of screentime, January Jones' performance is almost the complete opposite of Fassbinder's and McAvoy's -- by which I mean it's shallow and wretched, coming off like she's doing it through the grit teeth of knowing it'll advance her career. That's dental work acting.
Rafael: Jones was visually great for the role, but not much else. Her perpetual Betty Draper demeanor might sound good on paper, but the problem is putting her up against people who are actually trying. She looks finer than a motherfather, but is as lifeless as a Greg Land sketch.
Danny: In other words, she's this film's Halle Berry. By the way, she wasn't even the original choice for Frost. Originally it was announced that English actress Alice Eve was playing her. Who looks like this and is probably a better actress:
Rafael: If I had to niggle with anything, it's that I felt that there was too much self-reference at points. Wolverine telling Magneto and Xavier to go fuck themselves was great -- how much of a dick slap is it that a 15-second cameo gets the character down pat where three movies failed? -- but did we need Rebecca Romijn-Stamos-O'Connell-Hyphenate-Djeljosevic as Mystique? Or did we have to have Rose Byrne's fine ass actually call them the "X-Men"?
Danny: Someone's gotta name them, I guess. The Wolverine gag was damn-near-perfect, and the Rebecca Romijn-Etc. is fairly unobtrusive -- if you didn't know who that person was, it would just be a sexy adult woman. I can deal with stuff like that if it's in character and contextually sensical.
Rafael: Otherwise, I feel like this movie's script isn't quite getting the recognition it deserves. It's not perfect, of course, but it's great -- funny, well-paced, and with enough faithfulness that it does feel like the characters are being fulfilled. Vaughn's scope is definitely the larger part, but I'd give it a 51/49 share. Yes, the movie would probably still have looked awesome and been exciting even if it had The Last Stand or Wolverine's script, and even those latter movies had larger-than-life climaxes.
Danny: Yeah -- how great was the final set piece to the film? The Bryan Singer X-Men films have always had limited scope (at least X-Men: The Last Stand, for all its lifelessness, has suitable bigness happening at the end), but this open air battle is easily one of my favorites in superhero movies.
Rafael: It was pretty sweet to see so much flyin' -- that scene where Banshee flies and acts as a radar was way too dope and really representative of the inventiveness that this movie has on its side.
Danny: You've got characters flying around, teleporting between naval ships, fighting in submarines -- there's a ton of shit going on, as there should be in a superhero team battle. Compare that to X-Men and X2, where everybody's fighting in tight corridors. I think Matthew Vaughn set the standard for superhero fight scenes in this one.
Rafael: That fight was awesome, dude. Everyone -- hero and villain -- had a moment to shine. It was like a real fight -- sprawling and delightfully messy. More importantly, it felt like a legit comic-book fight! Usually the fighting would be between only a few major characters, but this thing becomes a big ol' donnybrook and I loved every cotdamn second of it. So well-shot and cacophonous, yet never feeling like explosion and action overkill.
Danny: And the fight isn't even the real climax! The real climax happens when the Navy of two massive superpowers (heh) fires a barrage of missiles at our cast of mutants. Which is an amazingly exciting moment.
Rafael: The idea of this personal conflict between two ideologies unfolding in the middle of one of America' s tensest hours was a stroke of genius. When those missiles head for that beach, it's a moment of action cinema brilliance. You might be right -- this whole sequence is gonna be a benchmark for how you do superhero setpieces.
Danny: A lot of people are going to slam this film for some shockingly substandard special effects -- ones that are probably only slightly better than those found in Wolverine, but I think X-Men: First Class speaks to the difference between the two. With Wolverine, everything's so terrible that the special effects are an extra slap in the face. In First Class, there's actual depth and compelling writing to the thing, so the visual flaws aren't as crucial.
Rafael: The special effects didn't bother me so much, and I'm glad you felt the same. You need a sub pulled out of the water, you got it -- it may not be the best looking sub, but at that point I was more enthralled with Magneto being able to do it than if it was convincing -- a sign that the filmmakers did their jobs, don't you agree?
Danny: Exactly. It's like Spielberg's ridiculous climax of Jaws, where he knows he's got the audience in the palm of his hand, so he's totally confident in making Roy Scheider explode a rubber shark.
Rafael: X-Men: First Class is easily the best film in the franchise and one of the better comic book movies to come out because it dares to do something different -- be a movie. I don't feel pandered to as a fan of the franchise or hand-held in unfamiliar territory -- I just feel like I watched a damn good movie made by some damn talented people.
Danny: I liked Thor well enough as a comic book reader. I loved X-Men: First Class as a fan of movies. I just hope this genre blending we're seeing with this summer's movies -- Thor's fantasy, Green Lantern's sci-fi, X-Men and Captain America's period settings -- are signaling a big change in superhero movies, where they're not completely indebted to the structure and formula of Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman. If so, we should be excited for the future of the genre -- and not just because we read the comics.