REVIEW: X-Men: First Class

9 06 2011

I’m not quite sure how “X-Men: First Class” fits in to the universe created by the other 4 films (like “Superman Returns“), or if it’s supposed to create a whole new universe in itself (like “Batman Begins” or “Star Trek”).  This confusion makes it hard to write about the summer superhero tentpole movie.  However, rather than worry myself with such fanboy concerns, I’ll review it like I chose to watch it: as a fun, entertaining reintroduction to the mutants that provides some interesting background on their origins (as well as shining some light on the REAL events of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Matthew Vaughn makes it easy to forget your worries about the movie’s place in the series by keeping a smooth pace through a script that balances big explosions with character development.  It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars.  He’s no Christopher Nolan behind the camera, but he’s certainly much better than Michael Bay or whoever made the horrific “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (which I still think was just an excuse for Hugh Jackman to prance around naked on camera).

Vaughn also makes some very savvy casting decisions; rather than filling out the large cast with marquee names or falling stars, he casts up-and-coming stars who make up for what they lack in marketability with their impressive acting chops.  James McAvoy (“The Last Station“) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglorious Basterds“), Xavier and Magneto respectively, are two incredibly reputable actors who bring drama and dynamism to the roles that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen made campy and stale. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone“) brings soul and heart to Mystique, two things Rebecca Romjin did not endow her character since she was too busy being sexy.  Nicholas Hoult (“A Single Man“) is a warm-hearted and lovable big-footed scientist.  January Jones provides some nice eye candy for those who might miss Halle Berry, although she will always be Betty Draper of “Mad Men” for me, while fans of Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids,” “Get Him to the Greek“) will also rejoice to see her featured as mutant protector Moira MacTaggert.

It’s like he’s trying to have the 25 year reunion of this cast be on the cover of “People” with the title LOOK HOW FAR THEY’VE COME in big bold letters (while Lindsay Lohan is arrested for the 30th time in the sidebar).  Vaughn uses these superheroes to create superstars, many of which will be touting above-title billing after this movie.  His choice not to overload with actors who we already associate with other roles makes us more drawn in to the characters and less distracted by the people portraying them.

Vaughn’s “X-Men” swings the pendulum of storytelling and tone back towards Bryan Singer’s first two installments, which is definitely a good thing.  Xavier and Magneto (then known as Erik Lensherr) form a bond of necessity and then inevitably part, as anyone good fan would know.  (It would be like if you went to “The Passion of the Christ” and didn’t know Jesus was going to die.)  However, the movie is built not on the necessary and predictable bookends but rather on what comes in between.  Xavier gathers other mutants, whose myriad talents are wildly different, ranging from adaptability to flying.

But Vaughn doesn’t use them as a freak show or a spectacle for amazement and laughter.  Taking a nod from Singer, he reminds us of the beauty of being different.  “X-Men: First Class” is just as powerful as a love letter to the beauty of minorities as it is a summer blockbuster.  While Singer made it much more personal since he was openly homosexual, Vaughn makes it slightly more obvious juxtaposed against the 1960s when African-Americans were in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.  And with most testosterone-fueled action movies sending negative messages, isn’t it nice when a movie tells its audience that they are beautiful and special just the way they are?  B+

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