The Creative Powers That Be behind the latest cinematic comic book incarnation of the X-Men must be hard pressed not to be doing a fair bit of gloating. Ever since news of this prequel project started to tingle the web threads of the internet; derision and cynicism by all, had been the overwhelming reaction.
Including yours truly.
Especially for a prequel. Which by their very nature are limited in what can be done story wise. That, and the less than enthusiastic reception the third X-Men movie received, made the odds of X-Men: First Class(XMFC) being a creative and financial failure very high.
But XMFC bucked the odds and surprised many of us. Joyfully surprised us.
XMFC shares many characteristics of Batman: The Dark Knight in that not only is it a great comic book movie, it is a great movie period.
Brian Singer’s signature fingerprints are all over this project. The themes of being an outsider, a freak, an object of fear and prejudice; echo many of the same themes from the other X-Men movies. Even though XMFC is treading over previously covered ground it feels fresh because of the time era and the character mixes.
For we see characters who are sworn enemies in the previous movies as friends here. Most notably Professor Xavier and Magneto. We are also shown that Xavier and Mystique grew up much like a brother and sister. Mystique harbors deeper feelings for Xavier which he somewhat, in a more youthful callous way than Patrick Stewart’s more mature version would not, dismisses out of hand.
The core of the movie revolves around Xavier and Magneto. These two are near brothers and equal in almost all aspects. Their coming together and breaking apart is niftily shown to us in dramatic form during those scary Cold War days between the US and Russia culminating in a climatic battle during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
One of the ongoing problems with the X-Men franchise is a surplus of characters and allotting sufficient screen time to each of them so that they become more than scene dressing. XMFC does the best job of giving each character more than just one scene or line. This is more true for the characters that Xavier gathers together than those that follow Kevin Bacon’s – ageless, energy absorbing Nazi scientist, Sebastian Shaw. Bacon brings a lot of energy and evil menace of a delicious kind to the character whose past is intertwined with that of Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr’s tragic World War II Concentration Camp days.
The movie looks fantastic and that 60’s vibe; which comes off as Futuristic Retro here; looks very sharp, very cool, and very sexy from the buildings to the cars to the bars to the women’s fashions and those crazy cool narrow ties. It really does feel like one of early James Bond movie as noted by many others. XMFC also has done a near perfect job of casting. Not only the big parts but the cameos, expected and unexpected too. Any picture that can shoehorn in Michael Ironside and Ray Wise – a deliciously wry piece of casting as the Secretary of State giving the go-ahead to escalate hostilities with the Soviet Union – gets automatic bonus points from me.
Of special note casting wise was Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy aka The Beast. Perfect. Hoult brought a sense of humility, sensitivity, intelligence and warmth to the character in addition to physically looking the part. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme/Mystique, fresh off the buzz of her performance in the indie picture – Winter’s Bone and the future Katniss Everdeen of the upcoming Hunger Games movie trilogy, seemed a little flat to me. The most problematic piece of casting scrutiny will no doubt fall on January Jone’s stiff portrayal of Emma Frost. XMFC really makes these characters feel a part of the world around them rather than apart from it. The movie avoids the pitfalls of comic book characters by having them inhabit the world like everyone else. They are in civilian clothes for almost the entire movie.
Much of the film’s success lies with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto respectively. Both excel but Fassbender’s tortured portrayal is a showcase performance. Magneto is a richly drawn character that provides Fassbender with a star making opportunity. One he takes full advantage of. Fassbender feels like a cross of Sean Connery mixed with Louis Jourdan. There is a sulky smoothness over a raging interior that radiates off the screen.
It is a true mark of a great film that the characters and their stories linger the most after the screen fades to black. Their individual powers are extensions of the characters. The characters are not there as placeholders for special effects shots. The powers get their showcase special effects moments but the strength of the movie is they are there supporting the characters. Not dominating them. They are subordinate.
I saw XMFC and Thor in the same day. Kind of a SuperHero Saturday DoubleHeader if you will. XMFC is the better movie and Thor was a solid experience as well. With the Green Lantern and Captain America just around the corner; it augers well for a great summer of movies.
XMFC is one of the far too infrequent movie experiences where one’s preconceptions are happily proven wrong. It is these kind of moments that make one excited for movies all over again.