Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class


It took Matthew Vaughn four tries, but he's finally directed a movie The Middle Room can get behind. His first film, Layer Cake, was all style, no substance, and the end result - while not exactly bad - left us disappointed. He followed this up with Stardust, which we rank number 3 on our list of most disappointing adaptations of all time, in this or any parallel universe (full list forthcoming). Again, the style was there, but the pacing and story fell flat (as did everything else in Stardust: seriously, that movie sucks).

Despite this, we were extremely excited about his third film, Kick-Ass, which looked incredible from its previews. The movie itself, however, was once more lacking any real substance. There were plenty of brilliant scenes, but they never came together into a satisfying whole.

We weren't sure what to expect from X-Men: First Class. It turns out that the movie is, well, all style with little real substance; a bunch of interesting scenes strung together without regard to flow by a director who clearly doesn't know the first thing about pacing.

But that's all right. Because the style was THAT GOOD. Sure, there are a few bad scenes. Sure, the story lacks nuance. But believe us when we assure you that this movie has style. The first of this summer's two superhero period pieces, First Class unfolds in the 1960's and offers an origin for Professor X and Magneto. And, setting aside all the missed opportunities around minor characters, the origin created hits all the right notes.

There are the usual missed opportunities around minor characters, and we still don't have a real fight scene between two teams: everyone just pairs off to battle their opposite. But that's okay. Because Magneto starts this movie hunting down and executing Nazis, and he only gets more likable as the film progresses. Reviewers are tossing around comparisons with James Bond, and the parallels are definitely evident.

First Class doesn't get everything right, and it falls short of X-Men 2. To say it's better than X-Men 3 and Wolverine would be a cynical statement: after all, those were abject failures. A more telling observation is that it's far superior to the first X-Men movie, and that it's more than sufficient to get this flailing series back on track.

Matthew Vaughn's weaknesses are still evident here, but he's also given room to demonstrate his strengths. Sure, if X-Men: First Class had any less style, it wouldn't be worth seeing. Fortunately, it's saturated in style, and is absolutely worth your time and money.

Against the relative five stars of X-Men 2, we respectfully award First Class a relative four.

26 comments:

Jesse said...

Wow, I couldn't disagree with you more. I thought First Class was thematically consistent, tightly plotted, full of emotional resonance and well drawn peripheral characters, and very well paced. Then again, I also liked Kick Ass a lot, although I thought it was very flawed. This one I thought was largely lacking in flaws.

Erin Snyder said...

My "all style, no substance" claim is admittedly exaggerated to play up the narrative that Vaughn is far better (and seems far more interested) in directing scenes than making movies (this is also a problem Spielberg has developed, so at least Vaughn's in good company). But there's certainly a hell of a lot of substance around the character arcs of Xavier and Magneto.

But not around many of the other characters. Particularly the female ones. Even Mystique, who's given a prominent role, is portrayed as a timid girl whose mind is being shaped by strong, powerful male characters. God, even at the end she can't betray Charles - she needs his permission to go with Magneto.

Frost doesn't fare much better, either: she's a follower, never a leader. Angel's "big decision" never feels like anything more than a small plot point, and McTaggart basically gets one scene in the beginning and end: other than that, she basically tags along without saying a word.

As for the pacing, it never really built towards anything. X-Men 2 used a large cast and complex plot to build a sense of dread. By the end of X2, it felt like the world was about to end. First Class just threw awesome scenes at us until it ended.

Now, that said, most of those scenes were TOTALLY AWESOME. Unlike Kick-Ass, there were few (if any) boring bits, and only a handful of cringe-worthy lines (actually, the only one jumping to mind is "mutant and proud").

So, awesome movie. I'd even admit it's a smart movie. But it's a long way from perfect, and it certainly wasn't put together with nuance.

Jesse said...

I though Mystique was fantastic, and her character and plot convincing and compelling, and her lack of central will of her own was highly consistent with her (not ever well drawn) character from the other X-men films. You don't become a zealous warrior for a cause if you have a strong mind and will of your own. Frost was a little disappointing given how awesome she was, and Moira didn't get much to do. I thought Angel's choice worked pretty well for getting so little screen time, which is always a problem given so many characters. I was highly impressed by how many tiny character plots there were, and that almost all of them worked. As for building, it didn't have a huge denouement, but I thought it built on several themes extraordinarily well (Mystique's discovering her place, Magneto and Professor X, Magento and Shaw with the legacy of that philosphy), that tied everything together wonderfully.

Jesse said...

I also thought it was significantly more cohesive and well put together than X-2, which was mostly awesome because of Wolverine and Magneto, that one scene with Storm, and the last shot of Phoenix. Sure the scale was bigger, but there was much less of a story, there, and very little evolution or development of any of the characters. It was a smaller story, kind of hilarious given the much bigger scale.

Erin Snyder said...

We can't have a serious discussion about why X-Men 2 kicked ass and/or how much ass X-Men 2 kicked if you're just going to casually omit Nightcrawler. I'm sorry: there's just no way.

Jesse said...

Whoops! That was completely my mistake. Nightcrawler was incredibly awesome, I'm sorry. But again, he was an awesome thing more or less in isolation, which I think X-2 was more guilty of than First Class.

Erin Snyder said...

For me, First Class just didn't add up to much, or at least not as much as X-Men 2. To be fair, it did add up to a complex and intriguing relationship between Xavier and Magneto, and I liked that it gave both their perspectives and poked holes in each.

But the plot was basically background noise. Nothing about the missile crises or the sub or anything else had any weight whatsoever. The tone never said anything more to me than "look how cool this is." Now, as I said in my review, it delivered on the cool, which is why I really, really liked this anyway.

Sure, X2 had a big cast. Sure, it wasn't focused on a single character. But it all came together in a way this didn't. The threat posed by Stryker was so much more effective than the one at the end of this movie.

Jesse said...

Weird. I actually thought you'd agree with me on this. I loved X-men 2, but I always found the plot to be sort of strung together, mostly a way to make awesome scenes into a movie. The nuclear war plot was a backdrop here, I agree, although I found it to do its job. The real plot was between Xavier, Magneto, Shaw, and Mystique, and I thought THAT plot was weightier than anything in any previous X-men movie, or actually any superhero movie so far except for Dark Knight. I thought the tone conveyed the idea of outcasts finding their place extremely well, and I didn't actually ever feel that the movie was being cool for the sake of cool. For one thing, there wasn't even one scene that was just about special effects, and the movie was extremely dialogue heavy for a blockbuster. I also thought it did an amazing job of bringing up themes early on and then coming back to them several times throughout the film.

Cybil Solyn said...

Having just come away from watching this I'm going to jump into this discussion. I have to agree with Jesse on almost all points. I can't say if I liked this more or less than X2 because I really felt they are different films and can't be compared. As a director, Singer is a freaking genius when it comes to blending character development and substance into an action film. This is something I've never seen another director do so well. Singer is all about characters revealing themselves and growing from and through actions, not dialog. So when stuff is blowing up, or falling down, or people are dying and running, we are learning valuable things about the characters. J.J Abrams did this very well in Star Trek - which is why that movie is so freaking re-watchable.

Vaughn uses dialog to move the characters along, and the plot is just the box to hold it all together. Now this is a huge step up from most action films which are all about plot and have next to no dialog that serves character development. This is why, to me, so many action films are boring. Those are all spectacle and no substance. In First Class the plot is a bit weak, but the characters are freaking awesome. Yeah Frost/Diamond/Glass/Whoever the hell that crystally chick was, pretty much blew. I mean, the freaking stripper wore more clothes than she did, but to say that this film is all spectacle is ludicrous. The film looks amazing, but I never felt it was looking amazing just to look good. In fact, I can't even remember a scene where I was like, "Wow but didn't the _____ look fantastic as it _____ed?!" All I remember are moments of time where characters interacted and I felt deep emotion as the music played. Because WOW. The music was stunning too.

Cybil Solyn said...

This film rocked, and was way more than just awesome style. This film has a crap load of substance. Overall I left this film thinking about the nuances of this film. Nuances I think a lot of people didn't catch because the writing of this movie is actually very subtle in places. Take for example the end on the beach when Mystique says, "You promised you'd never read my mind", and Xavier answers, "I promised a lot of things". What isn't said are all the promises he KNOWS she's believed in. He promised he'd be with her forever. He promised he'd be on her side and protect her always. He promised he'd love her no matter what. He promised he'd never let her down. He promised...oh so many things. All these promises broken and lost along with her innocence and heart. Subtle, and perfect. Because one of the most subtle things in this movie is Mystique's character arc.

I think with multiple viewings you'll find that Mystique's character is actually the most interesting of the film. I adored Magneto and Xavier's relationship. Hell I'm totally in love with both of them and may find myself combing message boards for shipper fanfic at any moment for the two. But Mystique is who I'm still thinking about long after the film is over. I was really concerned that they would make her a weak, lame, "girl" because let's face it, stuff written by and for men casts women in a bad light. Notice how only the women leave the "good" side? So I was concerned that she'd leave Xavier in a teen tiff because he didn't have a romantic interest in her. Luckily the writers walked the fine line of teen angst, coming of age, and first love to make her leaving very real and believable for me.

Cybil Solyn said...

When Mystique ultimately chooses Magnito over Xavier it isn't because she's jealous. No. It's because he doesn't accept her for who she is. He wants her to put a robe on, and hide her true self. He wants her to continue being his little girl best friend. Like Peter Pan, he doesn't want her to grow up. Yes she's being a bit over dramatic, but she's a teen girl so of COURSE she is! Xavier has been her hero and knight in shining armor for years. Having his Id, Magneto, come along and open her eyes to his flaws is earth shaking for her. Almost as earth shaking as him telling her to accept herself as she is, something Xavier has never done.

Magneto is Xavier's other half. His Id. His Yang (yeah that sounds as dirty as I wanted it to *grin*). And Mystique finds him sexy and desirable for all the same reasons she found Xavier sexy and desirable. The difference is Magneto accepts her and sees her as something sexy and desirable right back. Now the question I'm left with is did Magneto take both her emotional and physical innocence from her? It's left up to interpretation because the film is subtle and nuanced and plumbing the depths of Mystique and Magneto's relationship is one I'm dying to see more of.

Erin Snyder said...

"I can't say if I liked this more or less than X2 because I really felt they are different films and can't be compared."

Wait. Back up. What?

By design, First Class is precisely the same film as X-Men 2. Setting aside the fact both movies use a similarly sized cast to create a plot that's not centralized around a single character, and both movies involve trying to race a genocidal madman in order to stop him before he can put his plan into action except they're really about the characters, Magneto's arc in First Class is exactly the same as Wolverine's in X-Men 2. Both men, torn between revenge and loyalty to Xavier, track down the aforementioned genocidal madman and eventually have him helpless before them.

Logan chooses the light side; Magneto goes dark side.

Exact. Same. Movie.

Erin Snyder said...

As for Mystique, I agree with your assessment of the meaning of those scenes and lines, but disagree as to whether they make her a strong character.

She does almost nothing in the movie, and the few things she does do are in response to a male character's manipulation or command.

I found her leaving laughably unbelievable. If she had just left with Magneto, I might buy it. But that also meant going with Azazel and Riptide, who'd murdered 100 people in front of her and were also involved in the death of Darwin.

Plus, her brother's kind of lying on the ground dying at the moment. Past differences aside, this isn't a time you'd be skipping town with the bad boy.

Jesse said...

No, I agree with Cybil on all of this. X2 and First Class share certain elements of theme and plot structure, but they are completely different films. You think that, Erin, because you are both obsessed with and very attentive to both theme and, more specifically, plot structure. X2 was a story that took place over a few days, following a specific incident coming from the past of one character. First Class was much more sprawling, it was about building things, about the future. Magneto's was sort of similar to Wolverine's, only Magneto remembered it all, and it was about finding out there was more to him when he already knew who he was, whereas with Wolverine it was about finding out who he was.


As for Mystique, it was not a choice to go with the "bad boy." She just had missiles launched at her. She spends the whole movie learning that the world isn't safe, that she is going to have to become a soldier in a war, and there is only one person who is explaining any of this to her in a way that will allow her to be a person, to have any dignity. Her decisions are impetuous and hasty, because she is a young girl, and she doesn't know who she is yet. This character never becomes a complete person (as evidenced by the other Xmen films), she's always a follower, so it makes sense that her decisions are always reactions to stronger individuals. This is her deciding who to follow, and how to define herself, and I found it epic.

Jesse said...

Damn. I multiple posted because I hate this system, and by "hate" I mean "am bewildered and disoriented by." I now hate it further, since evidence of my transgressions are left for all to see.

Erin Snyder said...

All evidence of your foolishness has now been deleted. Well, except for your admission of foolishness.

Oh, and your arguments that X2 and First Class are completely different movies. You don't even want to make this argument: having Magneto's journey mirror Wolverine's was one of the more clever aspects of the movie.

It was almost certainly done on purpose and almost certainly one Singer's contributions as producer (he did the same thing in Superman Returns, as you'll recall).

Erin Snyder said...

On an unrelated note, this is by far the largest number of comments I've ever had on a Middle Room post.

Lindsay said...

Woo! I'm going to help add comments to this crazy string. I can't compare First Class to X2, because I don't remember X2. I know Nightcrawler was in it, and sort of Phoenix, and.... was that the one in which Magneto caught the Blackbird in mid-air? Because that was awesome.

Anyway, First Class. I liked it, sure I liked it. And I know that many of my problems with it come from my personal history with X-Men, and my current interest in equal time and attention for superheroines.

First I will say Xavier and Magneto's plot was awesome. Loved it. A twitter user verbalized my thought: "A million tiny slashficcers were born upon seeing that movie." And since that was the core of the movie, the movie is good.

I didn't buy anybody else.

Frost: no accent=completely annoying
Moira: WTF?
Darwin/Angel: Really? You're going with a team of classic X-men plus two characters invented recently, so of course those (non-white) characters are the ones who die/go evil. Sigh.

Mystique: I felt like her character was just there as the cipher, as the token being fought over by the ideologies of the leads, not much of a character for herself. Plus, and this part's REALLY petty, I think I partially didn't buy her because the actress who played her was all cutesy curves and curls. Mystique is infiltration and assassination! She is BADASS. She decorates her clothing with SKULLS. Plus when she was blue I couldn't stop worrying that her makeup was going to come off on the sheets or whatever. But that might just be me. ;)

Of course, I also happen to be a little invested in things like Mystique is Rogue's adoptive mom, is 100 yrs old, etc. And I don't love X1 and X2 enough to excuse stupid things because they match stupid things they did in the other movies.

I enjoyed First Class. I enjoyed it a lot. However, it didn't move me more than a sense of "cool!" and "Ick/Eep!" by turns. Kung Fu Panda 2 made me weep in the theater. Just saying.

Jesse said...

Haha. Come on Erin. There is a huge difference between having an element, even a central element, of one story mirror another and having the two be identical in any meaningful way. You can boil stories down to a small handful of different structures but that doesn't make them all the same stories. People who say that are stupid!

Cybil Solyn said...

Jesse- if you're ever in LA let me know. In fact, friend me on fing FB. You are totally bad ass...and I loved Kick Ass too, even with all it's flaws.

Lindsay- I am not a comic book fan. I don't "get" graphic novels. I can't even follow who's saying one. I'm just not a visual person like that. So I can understand how someone who has a past with these characters will look at the film through different eyes.

Mystique though, is as Jesse says, the kind of girl who would drink the Koolaid. In fact, she's the kind of chick that would force others to do it. That she's all cute and curly is HER perception on herself at that time. That's what makes the woman she grows into so intriguing. She turns into the exact warrior that Magneto wants because she is, like her mutation, the perfect foil to the person she is following.

Cybil Solyn said...

I also was, as usual, bewildered by how lame the other girls in the film were. Besides no accent, how about no freaking acting talent on Frost? And what the HELL IS SHE WEARING all the time? Who goes to see a Russian big wig in a bikini and a cape? How does she get any respect? And don't get me started on Moira. The CIA of the 60's would never let a woman work such a dangerous and high profile job - EVER. But the biggest waste was killing Oliver Platt. He was so under utilized. :(

Snyder - I can see your point on the films plot being similar, but that doesn't make them the same movie or comparable. They have similar themes, yes, but don't almost all action films? That's like saying Stand By Me is comparable to The Goonies. Sure they are both coming of age dramadies about an adventure with a group of friends, but that's were it ends. All the X-Men films take place in the same fiction world, but the movies felt so different to me. So very, very different.

Cybil Solyn said...

And maybe that's why I saw the film with more substance to it. Maybe it has to do with where I was as a viewer. I'm not a comic fan. I'm a romance reader. I don't have any knowledge of this world other than the two (I pretend X3 never happened or I get all angsty and enraged.) previous films. So I come away from this film as someone highly attuned to the nuances of romantic relationships and the fallibility of love.

Cybil Solyn said...

I would like to say that this movie has me talking about it, and thinking about it, more than Black Swan, which was a film I freaking hated, but also couldn't stop analyzing. Go your blog! I almost never agree with you, but always appreciate your perspective and humor. I'm glad you are enjoying the discussion as much as me. :)

Lindsay said...

On Mystique: "But that also meant going with Azazel and Riptide, who'd murdered 100 people in front of her and were also involved in the death of Darwin."

To be fair, she and Azazel have to get busy before too long if Nightcrawler's going to be around in time for X2. But enough of that.

I'm going to sidetrack briefly to talk about romance in X-men.

This is part of what gets me about these movies. They've squandered practically every great pairing in their source material. (Of course, in the history of X-men, practically everyone has slept with everyone else, and I don't have anything inherently against new pairings, okay that's a lie when it comes to Rogue&Iceman. That pissed me off. But that aside...)

Scott and Jean: Doing okay, and then destroyed by studio infighting in X3

Rogue and Gambit: not yet in the same movie, or really in the same timeline.

Storm and Logan: *shrug* I suppose it's still possible.

Shadowcat and Colossus: reduced to cameos in X3.

Storm and T'Challa, The Black Panther: not going to be in a movie together anytime soon.

Shadowcat and Spiderman: same problem

Xavier and Moira (who is usually the genetics expert and ethicist, damn it!): you can see how well that went.

Moira and Banshee: Uh... Not going to work now.

Xavier and Lilandra, Empress of the Shi'ar: I can dream, right? Right?

Logan and Mariko Yashida (Leader of a Yakuza family): Still possible.

Logan and Yuriko (Lady Deathstrike): sometimes semi-fused with the above... might kinda work.

Longshot and Dazzler: if either of them make it into a movie I'll be impressed.

Mystique and Destiny (Irene Adler): okay, I hadn't heard about this one before, but I love it. Ageless lesbian mutant couple! Nice! And... Not going to be in a movie. I might have some more comics to hunt down now, though...

mAc said...

Lots of good observations in here. (thanks for the invite, Cybil!)! After having a few days to digest the film, I have to agree that this movie is style over substance, as it lacks some real emotional resonance. Now, while I am being critical about some elements of the film, I did really enjoy it overall.

Mystique – Her character breaking into Xavier's house as a child to steal food was on par with who her comic character really is – selfish and independent. Yet, in all of the X-movies, and this one in particular, she acts like, and is treated like, a pet. And for all of Xavier's talk about outing mutants, he always forces her to hide. So much so, and from such a young age, I have to imagine that he probably psychologically damaged her both emotionally and telepathically over that long period of time as he wouldn't have great control over his abilities at that age. So maybe her lack of spirit was a plot hole I just paved over.

Emma Frost – Speaking of spirit, what a waste. Emma Frost is a right bitch (or should be). She wears those outfits because she gets off on manipulating people. You get a little nod to that when she looks annoyed while mentally toying with the Russian General, but for the most part, she gets ice for Shaw's drinks. To that point, this being set in the 60's provided Vaughn with two potential directions for his use of women. The opportunity to rise up and be bad ass and independent or to continue being second class (no pun intended). He chose poorly. If they wanted that 60's female attitude, instead of casting pissy Betty Draper, they should have cast Joan.

Missile Crisis – This scene, while not perfect, was executed rather well and also is massively important to the future of mutantkind. In the comics, Magneto and the X-Men's first battle was when Magneto was attacking a military base and was tossing missiles around. In the 60's, internet and nationalized news weren't pervasive, so a show of strength had to be on a scale large enough to put mutants on the world stage and make the world at large know how powerful and scary they were. This event was so massive, it would reveal their existence to everyone. The fight sequences were very entertaining to watch, and while they do simply pair folks off with their opposites, villains don't typically fight all that well as a unit and the X-Men have barely learned to control their powers, much less practice in a Danger Room as of yet, so it was forgivable.

(cont.)

mAc said...

(cont.)

Mutant selection – This is the thing that is the most curious about this film. Of all the mutants selected for this film, Xavier/Magneto and Shaw/Frost are the only ones who ever really appear together regularly in any point in the X-Men's 50-year history. Everyone else was plucked from different teams and eras, which was very odd, but also made for a huge flaw in the film as none of these characters had relationships to mold their interactions in the film. Having Alex Summers be the angry younger brother with lack of control over his powers in contrast to his brother Scott Summers (Cyclops) with perfect control is something that this movie would have benefited from.

Emotionally Cavalier – There didn't seem to be any real fear or danger or even anger about the violence being done around these kids at any point. Hank McCoy was great at expressing his shame and fear of being different, yet everyone else just acted like their ability was just some kind of magic trick they learned and was no big deal. Even if mutant hysteria wasn't rampant, it was the 60's and being different in even the most minor of ways was just not accepted. I also didn't buy the opening scene with Magneto as a child. With all of his anger, he spent all of his time crushing 2 soldiers and then trashing a room that he most likely had never seen before and wouldn't have shared all of the anger and disgust of the movie's audience, who know what the Nazis did during the war. So after Shaw shoots his mother, he basically ignores him for the rest of the scene.

Anyway! All of that being said, I really did enjoy the movie and I loved how they really spent time on thinking about the nuances of how each person would use their powers, both in a large sense and in small, insignificant ways. Fassbender really sold his role as Magneto and McAvoy's sorely naïve Xavier was spot on. I thought the 60's was a very interesting frame for the story and allowed not only a unique stage for social issues, but also some great style.

If anyone wants to get into the nuances of Shaw's kinetic abilities merged with Bishop's energy redirection ones, let me know.

And considering ages of characters throughout the 5 X-Men films to date, I think holding on to particular relationships (like the fact Azazel and Mystique are Nightcrawler's parents) probably won't work. Although a Havok/Polaris one could be fun, if they do a sequel.

OK, I'll stop now.