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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Movie Review: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS


X-Men: First Class is a 2011 superhero action film directed by Matthew Vaughn that serves as a prequel to the 2000 film X-Men and its subsequent sequels. The film opens in the mid-1940s, giving a little exposition for our two male leads: Charles Xavier (to be played by James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (to be played by Michael Fassbender). We then fast forward nearly twenty years to the early 1960s, where Erik has spent the majority of his life looking to avenge his mother's death by the hand of a man named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, Charles is finishing his doctoral dissertation about genetic mutation in humans while living with his seemingly-adopted "sister" and friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). On the night of his dissertation presentation, Charles meets a woman named Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), who tells him of a matter of major security: Shaw is dealing with the Russians in order to start what looks to be a third World War. Charles and Raven accompany Moira to stop Shaw's plan and meet Erik in the process. After learning that each of them is a mutant, the three agree to join forces with the CIA in order to put a stop to Shaw's plans. By recruiting a number of mutants from around the United States, Charles and Erik assemble a crackpot team to do battle against Shaw and his loyal followers, all in the hopes of preventing a massive nuclear war that could wipe out the face of humanity.

When I first heard about plans to produce a prequel to the X-Men franchise, I can honestly say that I was a little unnerved. I had never been a huge fan of the X-Men films, but I had thoroughly enjoyed all of them (the Wolverine spin-off included, if only for Hugh Jackman's charisma). As the cast list slowly started to trickle through the grapevine, however, I found myself becoming more and more anxious for the film's release. With stellar actors like McAvoy, Fassbender and Bacon headlining the cast, I assumed we'd be in for a pleasant treat. Still, taking a story back to its roots can be a daunting task, and I've seen some "origin" stories simply crash and burn. Fortunately for us, First Class is, as one of my readers so blatantly put it, "a first class movie."

Let's start with the acting since I've already mentioned it a little bit. McAvoy proves to be the perfect fit for a young Charles Xavier, in my opinion. He brings the grace and the attitude that Patrick Stewart brought to the role in previous films, and he doesn't forget to turn on the charm now and again. It's a different look at Xavier, however. We get to see him as a young man who, despite all of his ambitions, desperately wants to fit into society as a normal individual. Fassbender was an equally good choice to take over the role of a young Magneto. His character is benefited by one of the larger character arcs in the film, giving Fassbender the opportunity to strut his stuff a little bit more than the rest. Although his Irish accent starts to slip out a little bit towards the end of the movie, he mostly stays on an even keel and provides a strong and surprisingly emotional performance. Recent Academy Award nominee Lawrence gives a decent performance, but having seen her in Winter's Bone makes it a little difficult for me to believe her as Raven/Mystique because the characters are so glaringly different. It took me a little while, but I finally fell into her character and could believe her in that role. And what can I say about Kevin Bacon? If anyone's stealing the show here, it's him. He and Fassbender work their multilingual magic throughout the film; the difference, however, is that we all knew that Fassbender could rock it. When Bacon started spouting in German and Russian, I was simply blown away. He gets a lot more screen-time in the first hour of the film, but he makes the most of what he's given. Kudos, Mr. Bacon. I tip my hat to you.

Now, I could go on and on about every character in the film, but we're really being given a solid performance from every featured actor. And boy do we have a laundry list on our hands, folks. There's so many recognizable faces in this film that it was difficult for me to wrap my head around it all. Be on the lookout for the likes of Oliver Platt, Zoë Kravitz, January Jones, Olek Krupa and Michael Ironside. Oh, and there is one cameo that I'd rather not mention because it's probably the funniest part in the film. I'll leave it for the people who've already seen the film to know what I'm talking about.

In addition to the stellar acting ensemble, we're also getting a solid screenplay to bring the story to life. As I said earlier, it's almost like an origins story, in that we're getting a lot of the back story on our two main leads, and it's telling us how we get to the events that take place in the original X-Men film. I personally have always been rather fond of films that take true historical events and warp them a little bit, twisting them into an alternate reality (i.e., the entirety of 2009's Inglourious Basterds). This time, we're getting a crack at the Cuban Missile Crisis, a moment in U.S. history that could have easily spelled the certain doom of America. Fortunately, it never panned out extremely violently, but this screenplay takes a look at how it might have turned out had mutants been involved. It's a clever twist on history, and it makes for an interesting concept. That being said, the real meat of the screenplay comes in the exposition and the back-story for both Charles and Erik. While Erik's is a little grander and more drawn out, getting the in-depth look at the driving forces behind their personalities is quite a treat for the viewer.

Now, there's been a TV spot running around with a review that said that X-Men: First Class is better than 2008's The Dark Knight. I'd like to quash that right here and now: First Class is a great film, but it doesn't come close to touching the brilliance exhibited by Christopher Nolan's second Batman flick. So please, let the comparisons stop there. I'm not saying that First Class isn't good - it just doesn't reach the bar set by The Dark Knight. Still, I personally believe that First Class is the best X-Men film to date. As I said earlier, I was never huge on the previous films, but I always found them entertaining. This one, however, is another another plane entirely, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Movie Review Summary:
(I'm going to start giving my "score" for each film I review in addition to its grade. For a breakdown of how I "score" films, take a look at my grading system.)
Score: 8.5
Grade: A-
2 Thumbs Up

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