Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

Welcome to the third and final installment of Hey You With The Face's SUPER WEEK. So far, we have seen a truly abysmal Superhero movie (though I feel obliged to make an amendment to the statement at the end of the Green Lantern review - Daredevil was also a worse film), and we have seen a spiritual defilement of E.T. in the form of Super 8. So now it's time for the climax of Super Week, a review for the ages! Ladies and gentlemen - X-Men: First Class.

The latest series of X-Men movies have had an exceptionally unreliable track record. The first movie, simply titled "X-Men", was released back in 2000. The turn of the millennium marked the beginning of the last decade's trend of rebooting a whole ton of comic book movies, and X-Men was the flagship, the first of them all, coming in a few months before Spiderman. Packed with the incredible talents of actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, the movie was a hit. Combining a more mature look at the series while also staying essentially true to the source material, X-Men was an excellent way to appeal to both old fans of the series and newcomers to the franchise. Then, three years later, the director came back to bring us X2, a movie which many people had issues with, but I actually found to be a superior film to the original. X2 did well enough in theaters to entirely justify a third... and that's where things went horribly wrong.

I don't think I have to say much about X-Men: The Last Stand. While those unfamiliar with the comics didn't have much of an opinion on it, those of us who considered ourselves fans of the series were outraged. With a new director came a hideous new vision of the X-Men universe, and in doing so completely ruined one of the most powerful story arcs in X-Men history.

We won't even talk about X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Normally Deadpool would, but they appear to have removed his mouth.

With those two horrible films fresh in our memories, many comic book fans (including myself) were barely willing to give X-Men: First Class any notice - and both Marvel and 20th Century Fox knew it. To them, First Class was their last chance to redeem the X-Men movie series, hoping to rescue it from the fate of total collapse. With that weight on their shoulders, the makers of First Class had a lot of work to do in order to succeed...

And they did that spectacularly.

Not only is X-Men: First Class the best X-Men movie yet filmed, it ranks among the top superhero movies ever made. First Class delivers everything that worked well in the 2000 X-Men, and then cranks it all up to 11. Not only did the film take on the herculean task of saving the X-Men franchise from utter destruction, but the fresh new vision that director Matthew Vaughn brings to the series is sure to draw an entire new generation of moviegoers to the X-Men universe in general.

The story opens following the story of the origination of Professor Xavier's "school for gifted youths" by showing us the formative years of the men who would become the biggest names in future mutant society. Not only do we meet the young and naive Charles Xavier as he begins his quest for Mutant equality and acceptance, but we also meet haunted Holocaust survivor Eric Lensherr, who will eventually become Magneto - one of the greatest comic book supervillains of all time.

Like a boss.

However, this movie takes place just before Eric becomes Magneto and begins his quest to place Mutants as the rulers of society, though the film does an exceptional job of explaining why this viewpoint forms. In fact, Eric is even more of a protagonist and hero than Xavier, throwing himself into the thick of things and engaging in some truly thrilling heroics. Xavier, in contrast, takes much more of a side role, and is almost unlikable at times in comparison to the profoundly sympathetic Lensherr.

Set in the later years of the Cold War, the characters strive to find a way to bring all Mutants in the world together under the shadow of an impending nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.. Driving the conflict on both sides is a nightmare from Eric's past, the power-mad Sebastian Shaw. Having worked with the Nazis during the Holocaust, where he personally trained Eric to control his powers, Shaw wants to use the nuclear war between the two global superpowers and use the resulting radiation to mutate the rest of the world. For those of us who remember what Magneto's plot was in the first X-Men film... yeah. That's pretty awesome.

"Give in to your anger, my young apprentice."

It should be noted that there is not a single actor or actress in this movie who delivers a performance that I can complain about. The side characters do good jobs with what they have, and the leads perform spectacularly. The chemistry between James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Eric is truly a joy to watch, and both actors to great service to the franchise as a whole. They stay true to the portrayal of their characters in the other films while also adding plenty of new ideas of their own. Kevin Bacon excels in his deliciously evil role of Sebastian Shaw, delivering the sort of brilliant performance that many villains these days notably lack.

The writing and effects, in stark contrast to the other superhero movie I reviewed this week, are stellar. Everything flows so seamlessly together that the effects seem perfectly natural among the rest of the world. First Class plays out like a James Bond movie, just with superpowers and universally good acting. Sure, there are a few issues with true-to-the-comics portrayals of some of the supporting characters (most notably the almost complete rewrite of Mystique), but I thought that it was entirely forgivable in light of the rest of the film.

Bottom line? This movie is great. It's an absolute must-see summer blockbuster that has redeemed the rest of the X-Men franchise. If you possibly can, go and see this movie in theaters before it's too late - you're not going to want to have to wait until the DVD release.

Final Grade: A-

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