Saturday, November 19, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz
Running Time: 132 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I've never read an X-Men comic, never saw any of the previous movies and have no familiarity with any of the characters in the superhero franchise. So saying that, the highest compliment I can give (and it's a big one) to Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is that it made me care and want to see more. For a while  I even forgot I was watching a superhero movie and by the time it fully morphs into that by its finale, it's a transformation that's well earned and impressively handled from a technical standpoint. The origin story it weaves is compelling, making especially excellent use of its time period and setting to convey an atmosphere that makes the film play more like a lost James Bond entry (back when they were fun) than another cash grab for Marvel along the lines of Iron Man 2 or Thor. It's good to make money and build a franchise but you need a foundation to do it on and Vaughn gets that, crafting an entertaining, often mature PG-13 rated adventure that doesn't insult audience's intelligence and delivers thrilling action when necessary.

The origin story goes all the way back to to the swinging early 60's to show how young mutants Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Leshner/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) become allies when they're recruited by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to stop the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Seeking revenge on former Nazi doctor Shaw for the death of his mother years ago, Erik's bloodthirsty obsession and cynical outlook clashes with Xavier's decidedly more peaceful worldview, planting the seeds for an eventual feud between the two friends. We also meet Xavier's blue-skinned adopted sister Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) struggling to accept to her identity. She's joined by Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) and Armando Munoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), all outcast mutants with special gifts they've yet to find the ability to fully control or understand.

The script juggles multiple storylines as the story jumps between settings and time periods with what seems to be little effort at all, making the over two-hour running time fly by in a flash. There isn't a dull moment to be found and given how many characters there are a suitable amount of attention is paid to each one that goes beyond just exploring their powers. Setting the action against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and social unrest of the 60's could have easily been a clunky device but the story of these mutants being ostracized and used by the government resonates since it only enhances already existing themes.

Three performances are legitimately superb and they're the three most crucial to the film's success. Best known for his breakout supporting turn in Inglourious Basterds, Michael Fassbender kills it in his first mainstream starring role, simmering with low-key intensity and bitter, pent-up anger as Erik and believably selling his character's slow building transformation into Magneto. When the climactic encounter with Shaw arrives it's a testament to Fassbender that it not only feels epic, but its result earned. As a hard-partying womanizer turned peacemaking humanitarian McAvoy's in a far different mode here than we've ever been used to seeing him while Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence is the heart and soul of the film, bringing needed depth to Raven in showing how she gradually loses her innocence. Kevin Bacon chews scenery even speaks German at one point, having a blast as the villainous Shaw. Casting the physically striking but emotionally vacant January Jones as diamond-skinned ice queen Emma Frost was a stroke of genius considering it's her only big screen role so far that's efficiently covered up all her weaknesses as an actress, or at least has given her a convenient excuse for them. If she's the weak link, it doesn't show for a change. As the only non-mutant, Rose Byrne makes MacTaggert seem essential rather than the odd woman out.

Vaughn stacks the film with many memorable scenes taking full advantage the retro time period and setting, incorporating impressive production design and clever musical choices, such as a recruitment montage set to Gnarls Barkey's "Run" and the use of Freddy Cannon's "Palisades Park" during a club sequence. This is how a intelligent comic book movie should be made and it wouldn't be a stretch to say it raises the bar, especially for those still feeling burned by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If my average rating seems to betrays my enthusiastic reaction that's only because I still have my doubts as to whether the film will be worth returning to repeatedly if you weren't a fan to begin with. Here's hoping I'm wrong, and that's certainly possible given how much there is here to appreciate. It's fun seeing back stories of characters I've only heard about and seen pictures of play out in ways more interesting than I suspected. Whether a sequel can build on that remains to be seen, but at least I'd be looking forward to it. X-Men: First Class proves to be just the shot in the arm the superhero genre needs.

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