Monday, June 6, 2011

"First Class" is First Rate

Okay, so I'm not all that used to eating crow here at The Nerd Report. Nerds never admit when they're wrong. But a while back you might recall that I posted about X-Men First Class and how I couldn't really get my head around some of the continuity gymnastics the film presented.  I'm sure many of you fully expected me to not see the film in protest, as nerds are wont to claim.

But hey, this is the Interwebs, where no one has to back up their principles with action! So, I went. And you know what? The movie is great. Before I went into the film, I pretty much thought the X-Franchise was dead. The third X-Men film was a colossal disappointment after the sustained excellence of the first two films. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was almost diabolically bad, and the idea of a Deadpool spin-off (a comic character that I think has absolutely zero mainstream interest attached to him) left me beyond cold. I was excited about a Wolverine film based on the classic badass Claremont/Miller miniseries and directed by Darren Aronofsky. But when Aronofsky had to leave the project, I really thought that the whole X-Franchise had run its course.

So when X-Men First Class was announced and in the run-up to release, I saw it as 20th Century Fox's attempt to squeeze a little more money out of a cash cow while holding on to the film rights that I'm sure Marvel Studios would love to snatch back. The whole mismatch of continuity (some of which directly contradicts the other films, let alone the comics) seemed arbitrary and while I liked the casting and the choice of director, the whole thing felt like the latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick; calculated, gluttonous and without any heart whatsoever.

But as the lights came up on First Class, I had to admit that I was completely and totally wrong in my impressions. This is the best X-Men film since X2. I would say it was better than the first film, and so much better than the third that it scarcely bears mentioning. Far from feeling like a heartless money grab, the film is loaded with heart, and it's got a great central story at that heart. It's clear the film makers wanted to tell the story of the friendship of Magneto and Professor X and how it collapsed.  And it was also clear that they had a very interesting way to approach it. The brave thing about the film was that they did something that I often think needs to be done more often in adaptations; they didn't let the source material get in the way of a good movie.

MacAvoy as Charles Xavier and Fassbender  as Eric Lensherr
It's a fine line between being faithful and respectful of the source material and being a slave to it. Continuity is one of those classic double-edged swords, especially in comics. It gives the characters and concepts heft, but it can also straight-jacket options for story-tellers. the fact that the film makers here chose to not allow past continuity to limit what they wanted to do makes for a movie that is both more surprising and more enjoyable.

Fox clearly would like this film to be the launching pad for more X-Men films, and I have no problem with that at all. James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both great, with Fassbender turning in a particularly solid performance as Magneto. The kids who play the titular first class are well drawn, with special kudos going to Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Kevin Bacon makes a good villain, with a motivation that makes sense, and a power set that while not quite like the Sebastian Shaw of the comics, does fit the story well. There are tons of great little cameos and tidbits for fans of the previous films and the comics, but another way the film succeeds is in not letting those treats overwhelm the story.

Matthew Vaughn, the director, does a great job, and this film is head shoulders above his last comic book film, Kick Ass. I liked his film Layer Cake, and this is more of a return to form, with a great attention to the period setting that never feels artificial, but accomplishes a lived-in tone that works.

The only let downs are some of the visual effects, which a merely workmanlike, not stunning, and the performance of January Jones, who somehow manages to make a telepathic woman who can change into a diamond form and who dresses in lingerie the whole movie completely uninteresting.

Still, I'm very glad to be proven wrong in my initial suspicions. This is a solid direction for the franchise to take, and I think it means that the future for the X-brand is considerably more assured.

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