Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

After jumping ship to make a largely forgettable remake of Richard Donner's Superman, and leaving the franchise in the hands of Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer returns to the X-Men universe as a producer for a relaunch of the series (of sorts).

The newest film, which in some ways feels like a prequel and in others more of a half-hearted full-relaunch that lets part of the original film series stick around, is a period piece set duing the early 1960's, specifically set around the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After a short introduction of a handful of the characters as children (including an expanded version of the early footage of Magneto in a concentration camp we saw in X-Men), the film fast-forwards to 1962, where most of the story unfolds.

We see the formation of the first team of X-Men (sadly with only one original member from the comic's beginnings actually included) as well as the slow transformation of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from an ally of the X-Men to their greatest enemy. I have to say, I really enjoyed this version of Magneto, who isn't the film's villain, but a damaged character evolving into the self-proclaimed savior of Homo Superior.

James McAvoy proves up to the task in his role as young Charles Xavier, fresh from university. Jennifer Lawrence is an adequate stand-in for a young version of Rebecca Romijn's Mystique (who is rewritten into the role as Xavier's oldest friend). And Nicholas Hoult works well-enough as the uber-geek version of Henry McCoy (even if his character given way too much credit for creating important pieces of the X-Men franchise such as Cerebro and the Blackbird).

Rounding out the team are Havok (Lucas Till), Scott Summer younger brother (who now appears far older than Cyclops), and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones). I was originally concerned with the inclusion of both characters, but both earn their spots on the team. And Rose Byrne makes something out of the rather thankless role of Moira MacTaggert as the CIA Agent assigned to work with the team.

Most comic book films like this one are only as good as their villain, and X-Men: First Class chooses wisely in casting Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. The Hellfire Club is a bit defanged for my tastes, and Shaw's abilities/powers are altered significantly for the sake of the story, but Bacon provides just the right mix of ingredients as the villain necessary to bring the X-Men together. And it's obvious he's having a blast.

There are also several small roles and cameos throughout the film including Michael Ironside, Ray Wise, and Oliver Platt. I'm not going to give away the best of these cameos, but you'll know it when you see it (and, oh boy, is it good!).

I wish all of the casting decisions went as well. The only acting January Jones appears to be able to do is fill out Emma Frost's PG-13 safe costumes with the exact same blank expression plastered on her face in every scene. I've also got to scratch my head at the inclusion of throwaway characters like Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Riptide (Álex González), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) over the classic X-Men characters.

Also troubling are sequences, sets, and moments, which feel much more 2011 (or 1980's futuristic version of 2011) than 1962. The worst of these is the mirrored nuclear reactor of Shaw's submarine which looks like it was designed by the set creator of Logan's Run.

X-Men: First Class is as equally flawed as both X-Men and X-2, but it's a far bit better than the cinematic abortion known as X-Men: The Last Stand. And, unlike Magneto's plan to turn everyone into a mutant from the first film, the story here feels like a real X-Men tale. It's not the best super-hero movie of the summer, but it's far better than I expected and provides plenty for fans of both the comics and the earlier films to enjoy.

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