Movie Review: X-Men – First Class

There’s been quite a bit of consternation about this movie from the geek community over the last year, despite it being directed by current director du jour of comic book films, Matthew Vaughn. “It’s being rushed!” you say. “It won’t fit into continuity” you say. “I won’t watch an X-Men movie without Hugh Jackman naked”, you say.

I’m pleased to tell you that your fears have been alleviated. X-Men First Class is a worthy successor to the X-Men film franchise as done by 20th Century Fox, in that it’s an overly simplistic, mindlessly silly piece of mediocre entertainment.  And not in a good way.

This is getting some rave reviews, and I’ve spent much of the weekend trying to figure out why. Is it the “blink and you’ll miss it” breakneck pace of the script, that adds more exposition than the book of Exodus yet doesn’t give us a chance to actually learn anything about any of the characters except for their name and power? And in a few cases not even that much? Or is it the mediocre script that hides its failings by tying the whole mess to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or is it the overly clever way it clumsily foreshadows events we’ve seen in previous X-men films? Or maybe it’s just the soulless, dead eyes of January Jones? Probably a combo of them all.

What I didn’t like: 

The script –  There seems to be some debate as to who actually wrote this script, but I’m not sure why, as I’m not sure why anybody would actually want to take credit for it. There are some good things about this script from a technical standpoint. It accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to in regards to plot points: A group of superhumans brought together by a brilliant mutant named Charles Xavier, attempt to stop a rogue mutant named Sebastien Shaw in his attempt to bring about nuclear holocaust. Ok. Mission accomplished. The script gets the job done, in that it lays out the plot relatively well, and also introduces the characters in an effective, though quick and clumsy manner. What it doesn’t do is to give us any reason to care about ANY of these characters except for two: Mystique, and Magneto.

Kevin Bacon, wondering exactly how his once stellar career went so wrong.

They are the only 2 characters that have any depth at all, but even they have their limitations. Magneto’s is that while are given more than ample reason why he would want to kill the main villain of the piece himself, we are NOT given anything more than that, and the final choices he makes seem to come out of almost nowhere. Mystique is probably the most fully realized character in the piece, but she is held back by the Portman-As-Padme-esque vacant stare of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence seems determined to prove that her fantastic performance in last year’s phenomenal Winter’s Bone was nothing more than a fluke, though to be fair she doesn’t have much to work with in the way of dialogue.

The rest of the characters are given such short shift, that their very inclusion is little more than a distraction. Although much time is given to fully explain each of our new mutant’s powers, none is given to actually giving any of these people a reason for being there in the first place. For example: Would a black taxi-driver in 1961 really decide that it would be a great idea to voluntarily move to a secret US government facility without anyone knowing about it? And why would a stripper decide to betray the only people who actually accept her for who she is after a 3 sentence pitch from a complete stranger? X-Men First Class is hoping that you’re too excited about getting to see another X-Men movie to want to know the answers to these, and numerous other questions that the movie provokes (Why exactly is Sebastien Shaw trying to cause a nuclear holocaust when he has absolutely no proof that that would create more mutants? Would Charles Xavier’s parents really be ok with him adopting a naked 12-year-old blue girl? And who the frak thought that the makeup job on Hank McCoy was a good idea?)

The biggest problem here is that the film attempts to cram 2 or 3 movies into one. There isn’t much wrong here that another hour or two of proper set up and character building couldn’t have fixed. The one positive comment about the script that I will make is that the many changes it makes in X-Men continuity are good ones that serve the film well, and tie into the existing franchise far better than I would have thought possible. Some fans might be up in arms over the minor cosmetic changes that Vaughn and company made to the history of the X-Men, but not me.

 The acting – Much attention is being given to the performances of Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Xavier, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastien Shaw. And they do a serviceable job with the poor material that they’re given. But any success they have on the screen is completely negated by the film-destroying anti-charisma of January Jones. Like a beautiful black hole, she threatens to suck any and or all joy out of every scene she’s in. To be fair, she plays the role of Emma Frost exactly like she plays the role of Betty Draper, but without the benefit of a good supporting cast or great script. Sadly, the clumsiness of the script pretty much prohibits any real acting talent from breaking through here.

I know, I’m being harsh. This isn’t Phantom Menace bad, or Transformers 2 bad. In fact, it’s not even close. Probably the biggest disappointment here isn’t that it’s a bad movie, but that it really wouldn’t have been very much effort at all to transform this into a good movie. But then again, this was produced by Fox, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Though this was a mis-step for Matthew Vaughn, it was a relatively small one, and I’m confident that once he sinks his teeth into something with far less studio intervention, and a little more meat, he’ll be fine. I wish I could say the same for the X-Men franchise.

Rating: C-


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