By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 23, 2011 at 1:02AM
Since the start of the year, we haven't been shy about our opinion that "X-Men: First Class" seemed to be the most promising of the four superhero entries landing this summer. The cast is great, Matthew Vaughn looks ready to step up a level, and the trailers have been among the best-cut of the year. But things haven't all been rosy: rumors of a lengthy, chaotic shoot have been rife, and the posters have been as bad as the trailers have been good, while the most recent clip for the film seemed rushed and weightless.
Well, the film's done, and is starting to screen to select members of the geek press and, while we won't breathe easy until we catch the film for ourselves, it seems like there's reason for optimism. While reviews are embargoed until Wednesday, Fox have allowed those who've seen it to publish "initial reactions" (no, we don't know the difference either, although it seems to come down to writing "this is not a review" at the top), and the word is uniformly positive, with some even calling the film superior to "X2: X-Men United," which is so far something of a high watermark for both the franchise, and for Marvel-derived movies in general.
The film, which Collider calls "a mixture of a reboot and a prequel" akin to J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," doesn't have a less-than-enthusiastic notice against it yet. Geektown calls it "the long-awaited phoenix from the ashes of a flailing franchise," while Drew McWeeny at HitFix goes so far as to say "I am happier overall with 'X-Men: First Class' than with any other film released so far in the 'X-Men' franchise at Fox... Right now, I'm still sort of in shock at how much of it works, and how ambitious the entire thing is," and Blogomatic 3000 says that, like "Star Trek," the film ties nicely into the franchise while also breaking some new ground: "'X-Men: First Class' does not forget what came before, in fact there are nods to it throughout, both fun and terribly sad, but fresh faces have breathed new life into familiar characters and their battle for acceptance has an added touch of humanity."
At the heart of most of the praise is the aspect that, for us at least, has always been the central draw: the pairing of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the young Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Opinion differs as to the film's MVP, with Bleeding Cool going for McAvoy, saying that "I don’t think you can really call the star of a film a scene-stealer, but McAvoy is the best thing in more or less every sequence he’s in, which translates to more or less all of the film. He even gets the opportunity to pull off some great little comedy bits and, when necessary, packs just enough emotional punch." Meanwhile McWeeny highlights his opposite number, saying that "Michael Fassbender emerges from this one a movie star, no doubt about it. He's a great Erik, a great nascent Magneto. He spends the first third of the movie auditioning for James Bond, and as far as I'm concerned, he can have the job whenever Daniel Craig's done with it." And I Am Rogue calls the Irish-German actor "especially badass as the future Magneto."
One of the younger cast members, "Winter's Bone" Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence, comes in for plaudits as well for taking over the role of shape-shifter Mystique from Rebecca Romijn -- Blogomatic 3000 says that the actress is "one of the true marvels. Vulnerable and fierce, Lawrence’s Mystique has extraordinary depth and much of it is portrayed with no need for words. Whether blue and proud or white and ashamed, this Mystique reflects better than most here the blur between good and evil." HeyUGuys concurs, saying that the future "Hunger Games" star "holds her own as Raven. The close, fraternal relationship she shares with McAvoy’s Xavier in the film may well upset the dribbling fanboys, angry at any change to canon, but also serves as a strong counterpoint to the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender, and she is very much the emotional heart of the film."
One of the few recurring criticisms is that, while the Xavier/Eric relationship is the successful beating heart of the film, some of the other characters in the hefty ensemble fare less well: Bleeding Cool writes that "There are some characters who get short shrift and aren’t allowed the space, or focus, that would have allowed them to really come to life – Riptide and Azazel, definitely, and Darwin, perhaps; and Moira McTaggart sort of fades away for a while." Den of Geek goes further, "It is just a shame that the supporting characters rarely receive such attention. While it is a joy to see the X-Men in nascent form, not all are fleshed out. Worryingly, the film’s female characters are immaterial, defined by either their vanity, or by showing up in lingerie at some point." Objectified female characters in a comic book movie? Surely the fans will never stand for that...
Still, failing to provide convincing female characters aside, Vaughn seems to have nailed it. HeyUGuys says that the director "manages to stay on just the right side of camp, keeping his tongue firmly out of his cheek, but also reserving the real sincerity for the relationships between the characters," but also melding the series with producer Bryan Singer's earlier entries: "Vaughn’s ability to direct action, and sense of humour run through the film, while the film still feels very much like a part of the world Singer created in his movies." Den of Geek adds that "'Kick-Ass' showed that Vaughn (and co-writer Jane Goldman) knows how to deliver superhero thrills while still maintaining style, wit and a strong emotional core. And it is this mixture of strengths that he brings to "X-Men: First Class," which consistently works on a number of narrative levels - be they origin story, period epic, super-powered action, thematic subtext or character drama."
HitFix concurs, saying that "I think one of the things that makes this such a success is the confidence that's part of every choice made by Matthew Vaughn and his creative team. The film is set in the '40s and the '60s, and while I wouldn't call it realistic, I think the impressionistic take it offers on period is even more fun than if they did it as complete realism," and it's this period setting that seems to have helped give the mutants renewed vigor. Den of Geek goes on to say that, "The film takes great enjoyment in its period dressing, revelling in the fashion, music and little details of the 1960s, from catsuits to colourful War Room maps. Throughout, Vaughn balances style and story, indulging in crucial moments of undercutting humour, fan service Easter Eggs, and splash-page spectacle."
So, for the moment, we seem to have something of a triumph on our hands: /Film concludes that "I don’t think anyone will see this movie and come out disappointed. It strikes a great balance of being accessible to non-comic book fans and packing some pretty cool easter eggs that comic geeks will love," and HitFix adds that "'X-Men: First Class' is a genuinely good movie, not just a good superhero movie... I think Fox just got it right, really right, in a way I can't say it feels like they have on any of their Marvel films so far."
It's worth noting that everyone reviewing here is firmly in the target audience, some are prone to a certain degree of post-screening breathlessness, and that early reactions to "Thor" were almost as glowing -- and that film, while decent enough, wasn't all that in the grand scheme of things. Still, we're hopeful that the early buzz will convert into a film that even those of us with superhero fatigue can take to our hearts. "X-Men: First Class" hits Europe next Wednesday, on June 1st, and follows up in the U.S. on June 3rd.