Nick Nunziata: Prequels are like assholes. Round and stinky.
The number of good prequels can be counted on a mutated hand stump and typically when a franchise attempts one it’s tbe death knell ringing loud and clear. I think Star Wars and Dumb and Dumber have taught us as much. From a distance, despite the presence of interesting and proven talent Matthew Vaughn in the director’s chair X-Men: First Class looked to be the punctuation mark on the mutant series after two very sketchy installments from folks named Ratner and Hood.
But au contraire!
Renn Brown: They’ve managed to pull something quite daring off here, and while it’s not without some serious flaws, X-Men: First Class manages to reboot the energy of the series, respect the previous movies, and reset the stage for healthier sequels.
How the film primarily succeeds is by putting the focus back on character development in two ways: spotlighting the compelling relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, and refreshing the themes of being a new minority in an unfriendly world. The path to Professor X and Magneto playing general to opposing sides of a mutant war is fascinating and brilliantly acted, and you’ll be left wanting much much more. And while the film falters and fails to do justice to all of its characters and supporting players, the overall re-framing of the “outsiders” part of the X-Men mythology props it up. The mutant’s own civil rights struggle was never ignored in the main X-Men films, but by Last Stand it had become so convoluted and wrapped up in the overwrought Phoenix plot that it was no longer as accessible. Here, by taking it back to a time before mutants were a hot-button public issue, the enormity of the coming struggle for acceptance once mutants go public is felt, which ultimately ties back in to the divide between the two central characters. Pretty clever, no?
So the film comes from a solid place conceptually, but looking at the execution it becomes a much more complicated pictures in which brilliant performances, painfully cheesy moments, energetic pacing, occasionally dodgy effects/action, and fun comic book sensibilities all collide together. When the dust settles you’re happy to find a film more pleasing, entertaining, and smart than you could have ever reasonably hoped for. Of course once you’ve re-calibrated your expectations, one starts to see the untapped potential for an extraordinary summer film, but lets examine what was actually accomplished first.
Nick Nunziata: What they accomplished is that they’ve made an X-Men film that recalls some of the best elements of the comic book at its heights. When The Uncanny X-Men was at its best it was a smarter, more dense, and very character driven book. While other heroes were fighting villains that were built around a cool costume concept the mutants were fighting the system. Fighting human nature. Trying to fight for their place in the world. It was a talky book but smarter and more challenging than the others, especially in an era before the cerebral “Vertigo Comics” style became more prominent. It was accessible but a cut above. That’s how this film feels. While there are some goofy elements (the origins of their characters’ names, the way some of the powers [Banshee] are used) the core of the film balances the summer movie stuff with actual dramatic integrity. That’s incredibly difficult both as a creative mission and within a marketplace and studio system focus grouped to within an inch of its life.
Renn Brown: That dramatic integrity is especially felt towards the beginning of the film. The focus starts out entirely on Charles and Erik, from their experiences as children to what purpose is driving them as adults. Erik’s background is full of horror and drama, and the film addends the opening of X-Men with a new sequence that explicitly motivates every bit of fury and revolution boiling inside of Magneto that we’ve seen or could potentially see. Kevin Bacon’s villain Sebastian Shaw ties into this scene of discovery which, again, is so sickening that you’ll still end up satisfied when Erik’s resolution with Shaw ultimately hamstrings the larger climax the film sets up. Erik’s adulthood lends the film a strong action core very early as he tracks down Nazis with the style of James Bond and the power of a modern god who still doesn’t realize he’s not alone. Xavier’s past provides a more subtle insight into his motivations, but the glimpse into his privileged but cold childhood reveals that Prof. X retains some deep, quiet baggage of his own. McAvoy does an excellent job of playing an Xavier that is clearly wise and worldly, but enough of a naive, prejudiced doofus that Magneto and the other revolutionary mutants will always maintain some resentment towards him.
These are strongly seeded themes that would carry a fresh franchise very far, so it’s almost a shame that they weave so tightly in with an existing set of films. Details may not line up, but the spirit and character development they pull of in First Class definitely does the trilogy that will always follow it a great service. Surely it was a wise move on the part of the filmmakers and producers to treat First Class as a singular prequel, but we’re going to want more and it will be a tricky (though entirely pull-off-able) feat to backtrack on a resolution that, despite a 30 year gap, pretty much sets up the dynamic that existed at the beginning of the first film.
Nick Nunziata: More importantly, I don’t care about the other films. Geared around the one-dimensional (but often fun) Wolverine, those had a different set of deliverables that does this. This is a much more interesting world and one that provides a much-needed diversion from all of the other comic book movies being pumped out by Marvel and DC. While FX heavy and with nice bits of action, it works on a much more resonant level. That is 100% thanks to Matthew Vaughn, McAvoy, and Fassbender.
It’s a good thing the film never strays far from Magneto, Professor X, and Sebastian Shaw. Otherwise it could have been very different.
Renn Brown: The film definitely shows its warts when it deviates. The “First Class” part of this equation is actually nearly as weak as I’d always feared, though it’s ultimately not a huge part of the plot. Side mutants like Havok and Banshee are thinly characterized and their powers very poorly utilized in the main conflict of the film. Don’t get me wrong- the “training montage” (so to speak) is one of the high points of the film, but the pay-off to those moments come before the film amps up the climax, and at that point they’re fights and side-missions feel like kid’s table stuff while Magneto and Shaw face off at the big table with powers that actually matter. Even Raven/Mystique, a very interesting character, feels briefly dragged down by becoming tangled with other kids. The younger mutants also drive the cheesiest part of the film, which is blessedly brief, but revolves around the characters naming each other. It’s a relief when some shit hits the fan soon after.
The group as a mutants overall also highlights another issue with the film- inconsistent effects quality. There are some beautiful moments and brilliantly realized powers in this film, but almost as many wonky pieces of CGI and make-up. Nothing is notably terrible, but it’s a shame to have a great moment of blockbuster spectacle be suddenly punctuated by other crappy effects.
Nick Nunziata: Agreed. I’m still trying to figure out how Banshee (portrayed by the creepy kid from The Last Exorcism) is able to fly around town like an F-18 when all he has is a bunch of Gallic screams to mobilize him. Up and down I get, but zooming around in between screams is ludicrous! It’s the only part of the film that isn’t 100% authentic. Also, is that the worst super power to have? Dude screams his way around town. Is he a superhero or Ian Astbury?
Typically the effects don’t bother me, especially if there story is compelling. That was the case here and though Mystique and Beast’s make-up designs and executions weren’t great it didn’t bother me much. Especially considering some of the effects in previous X-films.
This isn’t the Casino Royale of X-Men films as some are saying, but it is a very strong and entertaining movie. Frankly it had no right being so. With the absolutely dumb idea to reboot Spider-Man as a youth fresh on the brain it’s hard to have any positive outlook on films that on the surface betray the good work done to create these franchises. This is proof that it can be done. When it’s at its best, X-Men: First Class harnesses its era and delivers a refreshing mixture of dignified cheese and steely Cold War badassery that we haven’t yet seen from a comic book flick. If this succeeds, could the doors possibly be opened for more projects that defy the modern bombast?
Renn Brown: I hope future comic book films at least take away one of the subtle lessons of First Class, and that the fun of comic books and the (hoped for) sophistication of cinema can continue to merge gracefully without resorting to grit and darkness every time. This grace can emerge in the small details, with Fassbender and McAvoy’s use of gesture coming to mind. Fassbender especially dives into the physicality of a superhero whole-heartedly, and his storming of the Russian estate or his attempts to move the dish were based around very bombastic gestures that still felt carefully acted. The same is true with McAvoy’s little forehead touch. Matthew Vaughn also shoots action and drama with class, and reminds us why we get excited when strong filmmakers tackle comic books- there’s great work to be done.
X-Men: First Class sets a high standard for the summer, a happy surprise from a film that seemed like such a cynical move at the start. It’s a great blockbuster film that transcends its flaws by nailing the parts that matter. I’ll always have a little nagging wish that it had leaped over that final hurdle and sorted out all of its finer character work to become truly stellar- it reminds me of Star Trek in that sense. It’s nice that this second or perhaps third wave of modernist rebootquels are setting the stage for a refreshed batch of franchises. Let’s cross our fingers Matthew Vaughn sticks with the X-Men, and that he manages to improve his follow up as much as Singer did.
Mutant and proud.
Nick Nunziata: It’s a really good time at the movies, especially when the action is focused on the four leading characters. When the movie spends time with a metrosexual tornado thrower (“You know what happens to a toad when hit by tornadoes…”) it’s hard to stay invested but when Erik Lensherr is finding himself trapped between the worlds of men and mutants and taking that rage out I found myself caring less about adamantium claws and more on character development and performance. Thank you Matthew Vaughn!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars