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X-Men: First Class [REVIEW]

01/06/2011
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It’s been a bit of a rough time of late for X-Men fans. Like Superman, the third and fourth films in the franchise left a lot to be desired, so there is a lot of hope that X-Men: First Class will lift them back up to the heights of decent movie making.

Does the movie succeed in doing this? Yes and, sadly, no. It is overall a better film than both The Last Stand and Wolverine Origins, but doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first two films. Part of what holds it back, in my mind, is that it’s more of a hybrid film. Part superhero movie, part 60’s espionage movie. Yes, the bulk of the film is set in 1963 so that is to be expected, but the tone and pacing of the film is a lot more sedate than we’re used to. Superpowers are more sparingly used (most of the time), though that does give the film’s climax that extra ‘super’ punch.

What really stands out are some of the performances. Kevin Bacon is delightfully evil as the villainous Sebastian Shaw, leader of The Hellfire Club. Forget what you know of this character from the comics. Aside from his position within the Club and his mutant power, the character is VERY different. This is partly for plot reasons, giving him a history much more closely interwoven with Magneto and ultimately driving the overarching story.

The other star performance came from Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr/Magneto. This movie really is his origin story, following his time in the Nazi prison camp, up to the point where, inspired by Shaw, he forms the Brotherhood of Mutants. His is a tale of tragedy, suffering, and revenge, and Fassbender does a wonderful job bringing it to the screen. His friendship with Charles Xavier is handled well, and their scenes together a most enjoyable.

Sadly, the rest of the cast is more of a mixed bag. James McAvoy’s Xavier is good, but the “I’m reading your mind” pose gets old pretty fast. Most of the kids are handled pretty lightly, however, the script preferring to focus on their abilities more than who they are. Each of them has to learn to use their abilities in meaningful ways, all with the help of a 60’s style montage. The story tends to gloss over their back stories, giving us just enough to hope we care.

There is no worse example of this than Darwin – a mutant created specifically for the film. His schtick is that he can adapt to situations by changing his body. Stick his head underwater, he forms gills. Hit him with something and his skin becomes armoured. All that we know about Darwin is that he was a cab driver. That’s it. We don’t even know his real name. If alarm bells aren’t already ringing, they really should be. Darwin’s tenure on the team ends less than a day or two after it began when Sebastian Shaw kills him in front of the others. They even draw out the death, his body struggling to adapt, before he ultimately expires. Normally, this sort of death would draw an emotional response from the audience, but here you’re still thinking “Darwin who?” before his burnt out body hits the floor. What makes it worse is that the actor portraying Darwin is black. That’s right, they kill the token black guy not long after he first appears on-screen. Genius.

The film is not all as bad as I make it out to sound, however. It does have its moments of greatness, and if you can just sit back and not worry too much, it’s actually a fun film. There are also just enough references to the earlier films to tie it all together. Personally, I would have liked this to have been more of a series reboot however, as it did suffer the same sorts of continuity errors that plagued the Star Wars prequels. Peoples ages were pretty vague, with at least one occurrence of Convenient Plot Point to explain away one of the more egregious errors.

The film ends on the strong hint that there will be a sequel, and I’m sure Fox will be more than happy to milk this cash cow just that bit more. They are making a Wolverine sequel, after all. If they follow-up on some of the teases that appeared during this film, First Class 2 might work as a pretty good bridge to the original film. Only time will tell if that happens, however.

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