X-Men: First Class
Not until “X2: X-Men United” did I see the real potential for comic-book movies. After the ’90s Batman films and the first Spider-Man film, I was entertained by the superhero-versus-villain aspect of the flick, but because it was always the same setup; they never became great films. “X2” developed a more complicated storyline and knew how to use its characters with intelligence. Then “X3” came along and ruined all of that.
Since then we’ve had incredible films like “The Dark Knight,” but it’s the return of the X-Men that gives me hope again. Director Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust,” “Kick-Ass”) was attached for “X3” for several months and then famously quit after being frustrated with the studio interference. To have him return was a big deal.
The film is set during the 1960s when Professor Xavier still had hair and Magneto was just angry, not villainous. They’re played by two of the best actors of their generation, James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland” and “Atonement”) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds” and “Jane Eyre”). They are both seeking the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) for different reasons. Xavier wants to stop a nuclear war that Shaw is provoking, and Erik wants revenge for what happened to him during the Holocaust.
Using the resources of the CIA, they recruit a team of young mutants to join forces. This includes Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) as the shapeshifting Mystique and Nicholas Hoult (“A Single Man,” the UK’s “Skins”) as Beast.
“First Class” works more like a successful prequel story than an origin story. With most origin stories, it’s about showing the quick transformation into a superhero and the rusty first battle. This movie, much like “Casino Royale,” shows more about what shaped these characters into the ones we know now. There are small teases and jokes that work well, but the real strength of the movie is the story it tells.
All of the characters are well used, which is difficult for a movie with so many mutants. The action scenes are exciting not just because they are visually innovative, but because every character has a small part to play that uses their powers in a relevant manner. This isn’t like a bad video game where the character keeps pressing the A-button to throw something metal. The movie plays upon the characters’ intelligence.
As the film builds towards a final confrontation, it’s genuinely exciting. It doesn’t just feel like another good vs. evil showdown with a lot of special effects. Instead the stakes are high and even though this is a prequel, lives are on the line since so many of them are new characters.
Sure, some elements are a bit preachy and cheesy, but that’s what makes an X-Men movie an X-Men movie. Luckily the lines are performed by a great set of actors (and January Jones), so nothing is ever too distracting.
“First Class” finally brings some excitement not only back to the franchise, but to the summer. June is now upon us, and we finally have a tentpole movie that is very easy to recommend. It’s funny to think that what looks to be the best Marvel movie of the summer is the one that wasn’t made by Marvel.