Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class Review

Hi everyone! So the other night I went and saw X-Men: First Class. It seems the franchise that kick started the golden age of superhero cinema but later fizzled due to lackluster sequels has finally been given a new lease on life with this stylish, cold war era story that recounts the very first meeting of a young Charles Xavier, who will later come to be affectionately referred to by his students as Professor X, and Erik Lensherr, whose journey leads him on a darker path to becoming the maligned anti-hero Magneto.
For the sake of being nostalgic, I remember when my Dad and I went to see the very first X-Men movie a little over a decade ago. I was barely into my teens and my family was on vacation visiting my Grandmother in Vanwert Ohio. I think the Friday it came out my Dad took me to a matinee showing in the neighboring town of Lima because the theater in Vanwert had been wrecked by a storm. Now Lima is a pretty quiet place and had probably not seen many comic shops in its history, but even so, I can distinctly remember how flat out busy that little theater was the day Dad took me to X-Men, even for a matinee showing no less. The excitement in the air was palpable. People new this movie was going to be something special and couldn’t wait to see these characters brought to life on screen. I can still recall the gasps of amazement that issued forth from the audience the first time Hue Jackman popped his claws as Wolverine like it was hands down the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. When the movie was over I remember leaving the theater completely blown away by what I had just experienced. I know the effects look a little dated by today’s standards and that X2 is widely considered as superior to its predecessor but the first X-Men movie still remains my favorite in the series and one of my favorite superhero movies in general.
Going in to X-Men: First Class, I really hoped it would do for me what the first movie did. I have to say I was a little worried by some of the creative deviations the filmmakers had taken from the original comics, most specifically their decision to spotlight characters that were not part of the original incarnation of the X-Men which was comprised of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman, and Marvel Girl. In First Class Beast is the only carry over in a team made up of lesser known characters like Havoc, and Banshee who, as far as I know, did not show up until a while later on in the four color world. I suppose this was to maintain some sort of continuity with the original movies in which Cyclops, Storm, and Marvel Girl comprise the core X-Men group before Wolverine unwillingly joins to save Rogue at the end of the first movie and their numbers increase in X2, and Last stand to include fan favorites Colossus, Shadowcat, and Nightcrawler.. Since those movie are set in more or less present day and this new movie is set in the swinging 60’s, I can understand the filmakers trepidation in recycling previously used characters since that would automatically mean a reboot for the entire franchise, still the purest in me can’t help but cringe a little, oh well.
The beginning of the movie recaps Erik’s back story as we witness the agonizing trauma of him being separated from his parents by Nazi soldiers in 1940’s Poland. This scene was particularly interesting for me in that it is nearly identical to the opening of the first movie, in fact, I’m fairly certain they re-used some of the original footage, background shots mostly but nevertheless I thought that was pretty cool. Anyway, following this emotional episode which sees Erik’s power to control metal violently manifest as he nearly folds an iron gate in half in his anger at being ripped away from his mom and dad we are introduced to a new Character, Sebastion Shaw, superbly played by the always engaging Kevin Bacon. Shaw is high up in the echelons of the Nazi military and upon witnessing this incident unfold from a distance, immediately takes an interest in young Erik and his special talents, a turn of events that leads to truly devastating consequences.
After this bit of backstory, we see Charles Xavier as a young boy uncertain of his mutant powers and afraid there are no others like him in the world. Unable to sleep, he wanders through his family’s mansion in Westchester New York until he comes across his mother in the kitchen who consoles him and tells him to go back to bed. Able to read the minds of others as if paging through an open book, Charles quickly becomes aware that the woman standing before him is not his mother but an impostor and demands that they come clean with the truth before he notifies the authorities. Like something from another world the figure morphs into a little girl with blue skin and orange hair. Instead of jumping out of his skin like any normal kid would do Charles is instantly relieved that he is not the only one and there are others out there like him. The begin a friendship that continues years later when they are both into their twenties. This is were the movie kind of confused me as I was unsure what to make of the very sibling like relationship between Charles Xavier and the girl who of course is Raven Darkholme, “Mystique.” Was she adopted by the Xavier family and they just hadn’t told him yet? Did she sneak in there to steal from the kitchen before Xavier found her and later convinced his family to let her stay? I don’t know, the movie doesn’t do a very good job of explaining this. Nothing from the original films suggests that Mystique and Xavier had any kind of history together and I though this was one of the new movie’s more noticeable weaknesess. Plus, I found the actress that played the older version of mystique to be just plain annoying at times and a definite weak link in a cast that featured stand out performances from its lead actors.
Leaping forward around ten years or so into the future we see Charles, now an expert in mutation, finishing up his phd at Oxford before an attractive CIA agent named Moira Mctaggert shows up and convinces him to come back to the states with her and work with the government who currently have their hands full trying to nab a dangerous saboteur named Sebastion Shaw whom they suspect is, “gasp!” a mutant.
Getting back to Erik, we see that in the years following his ordeal at the concentration camp he has matured into an angry and vengeful man bound on a quest to exterminate the numerous ex Nazi generals responsible for his people’s misery. There are a couple of genuinely cringe worthy scenes in which he uses his powers over metal to terrorize a couple of Nazi ex-patriots and a former conspirator whom he decides to play a little game of dentist with upon sensing the metal fillings in his teeth. At the top of his kill list is Shaw, and he nearly gets the drop on him after infiltrating a large yacht which serves the double purpose of acting as a base of operations of sorts for Shaw and a rogue team of mutants who call themselves The Hellfire Club. The attempt is foiled however after the U.S. Coast Gard joined by Xavier and his new CIA buds raid the area and after short skirmish, Shaw and his team beat a hasty retreat when their yacht converts to a submarine.
Frustrated at having come so close to killing his number one target only to be denied satisfaction, Erik reluctantly decides to partner with Charles when the latter awakens him to the unlikelihood of his winning a one man war against a group of equally powerful mutants. Erik and Charles then convince the CIA to let them assemble their own team of mutants to battle fire with fire and the two begin a nationwide recruitment drive that brings together a distinct group of individuals which comprises the first class.of X-Men.
This sums up about the first half of the movie and I will let you, the reader see the film for yourself to find out how the fledgling team of mutants fair in their first battle against an enemy bent on world domination. If anything, First Class definitely stands apart from its predecessors in its period setting of the 1960’s and incorporation of actual historical events like the cold war, and Cuban missile crises into the storyline. The overall highlight of the film however, is the complex relationship between Charles and Erik who both want to achieve the same goal, but go about it by different means. There was a sense of finality to the ending that I did not expect as I thought we would see the two develop into their comic book counterparts through the course of one or two more films. It’s a shame, I wish they had stayed friends longer.


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