By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 6, 2011 at 5:47AM
By this point, it's more than likely that you've checked out "X-Men: First Class" (although its underwhelming box office suggests that there were fewer of you than we thought). And, if the film's strong exit scores are anything to go by, you, like most of The Playlist team, found it as entertaining a superhero movie as any in the last few years: fresh, exciting and well-directed, with a brace of star-making performances, it's certainly given a much-needed kick up the ass to a franchise that's had two awful entries in a row.
Which isn't to say that it's perfect: undoubtedly down to the film's rushed production schedule, it has plenty of flaws. Some might be nitpicks, others are more troubling, but everyone on the team has a few bugbears with 'First Class,' and now that it's in theaters across the globe, we wanted to go a little more in depth than our review from last week into what works, and what really doesn't, just as we did with "Thor" earlier in the summer. This means, of course, that MASSIVE SPOILERS are ahead, so if you haven't seen it already, you should avoid clicking until you've caught up. So, with no further ado, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of "X-Men: First Class."
Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy
The reason we were principally excited about the film in the first place was the casting of top-notch young stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, and even the most negative reviews agree that they deliver in spades -- the most controversial aspect is which of them gives the best performance. Fassbender was always going to be a perfect fit, and, aside from his variable accent (he gets more and more Irish as the film goes along), he smashes it: channeling a turtle-necked Bond at the beginning, showing hints of vulnerability as things progress, but always hinting at the darkness under the surface. He’s been poised to go huge for some time, and this will only cement him as a giant movie star. McAvoy’s is the less meaty role, but he’s just as good: the script sensibly breaks from Patrick Stewart’s saintly portrayal by making Xavier a boozing, girl-chasing guy, although still a noble one. It’s the flaws that make it special: for all his championing of mutant rights, McAvoy shows in the later stages of his relationship with adopted sister Raven that he’s just as shallow and prejudiced as any human. We argued for some time over which was the MVP, but the fact is, they work like gangbusters together: it’s evident from the press tour that the pair get on like a house on fire in real life, and it’s their chemistry that really sells the film.
Jennifer Lawrence & Nicholas Hoult
Not that the younger cast members don’t turn in good work too. Almost all cast members are solid, even in thankless roles, but the standouts of the college-aged mutants are certainly Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, and to a lesser extent Nicholas Hoult, as ape-footed scientist Hank McCoy. Lawrence shows that she won’t phone in blockbuster roles (boding well for “The Hunger Games”) as Raven/Mystique, every bit the little sister emerging into adulthood, with all that entails. The character was essentially a cypher in the Singer/Ratner trilogy, but Lawrence makes the struggles of a girl who can look like anyone, but can’t escape her natural form, genuinely heartbreaking. Hoult, who replaced “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” star Benjamin Walker at the last minute, has a similar arc, albeit one that’s less well-realized (more below). But when he’s still in human form, Hoult is great as the awkward genius firmly uncomfortable in his own skin, finally justifying the hype that’s been behind him in recent years.
Admittedly, this was a contentious one among the Playlist staff, but it basically boils to do this: the epic finale with the mutants pitted between the Russians, the Americans and a whole bunch of missiles was a winner. The denouement (basically everything that happens after the beach sequence)? Not so much. But, like a lot of things in “X-Men: First Class” -- and what will become a theme through much of this piece -- the weaker aspects of the last portion of the film are easy to overlook when compared to how much of it works. If the film gets off to an unstable start, Matthew Vaughn more than makes it up for it with a truly thrilling, appropriately epic and wonderfully lensed showdown in which both the fate of the world and Magneto’s redemption are drawn to surprisingly bittersweet conclusions. While Shaw is dead, Magneto’s soul remains darkened and cynical as the humans have once again favored fear and tried to eradicate the mutants. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier not only sees his optimism dashed, he’s paralyzed in the process in a scene that is much more moving than you might expect. While some folks have lazily thrown comparisons between ‘First Class’ and “The Dark Knight” around -- Christopher Nolan’s film is far superior in most regards -- at least in the finale, Vaughn’s film is every bit as dark at Batman’s martrydom. If only he’d resisted putting Fassbender in the purple cloak at the end.
The ‘60s Setting/Production Design
Maybe it hurt it at the box office, but relocating the film to the 1960s was an inspired move. With every other superhero movie basically sticking to New York (or in the case of “Thor,” the little town of Backlot, New Mexico), giving the mutants a retro finish makes ‘First Class’ stand apart not just from recent awful 'X-Men' entries, but also the rest of the superhero pack and their would-be gritty realism. Even if the film doesn’t engage with social issues as much as we hoped, aren’t superheroics just, well, cooler in this era? And special mention must go to production designer Chris Seagers, Tony Scott’s regular collaborator, who knocks it out of the park with a succession of Ken Adams-esque sets, while maintaining a continuity with the Singer series of films.
Considering all the body-switching, bared skin and young hormones of the “X-Men” comics, it’s a little strange that the movies to date have been so chaste. Matthew Vaughn and company definitely correct that this time out (even aside from the alleged summer camp-like vibe on set). In addition to the homoerotic tension between Xavier and Erik, there’s the creepy slave/master relationship between Sebastian Shaw and White Queen, who can reproduce a facsimile of herself to make love while the real version trims her nails. Meanwhile, Mystique, who clearly has some sort of incestuous age-play thing going with Xavier, engages in needle-play with Beast, before embracing her scaly self in bed with Magneto, and then taking a post-coital nude kitchen stroll in front of Xavier. Rawr! Indeed, the absence of a standard love triangle, a la Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, was somewhat refreshing, particularly in a climate where the success of “Twilight” makes such a thing a near-necessity to executives. Not that the hormones aren’t flying, but it’s much more incestuous and messy, like... well, real life.
For the first hour of the film ‘First Class’ sets itself apart by not inserting a gigantic action setpiece every 15-20 minutes. The action is spare and the scenes of Erik hunting down Nazis are some of the most thrilling in the film. Fassbender proves with a few quick moves that a great character is more exciting than all the blowing-shit-up Michael Bay can muster. (That is, until the finale when it becomes a much more conventional superhero ‘save-the-world’ film). Vaughn gets what few directors do: that it’s the beats that make the action memorable, not the spectacle, and all the way through, he makes it clear (no shakey-cam in sight) and exciting, proving what we suspected after “Kick-Ass” -- that he’s got killer action chops.
Magneto: Nazi Hunter Subplot
Since the movie starts off flashing back to the first moments of Bryan Singer’s initial “X-Men,” with a young Magneto brutally torn away from his family in a World War II internment camp, it makes sense that the jazzy reboot, taking place in the decades that follow, would investigate this further. But it’s still a little bit of a shock just how gleefully demented and entertaining these vignettes are – particularly a prolonged sequence set in Argentina. At least two Playlisters made an audible yelp when this sequence played out, which involves a flying dagger and multiple Nazi targets. But none of this would be worth a damn without Michael Fassbender, who in these scenes works out that combination of charm and menace that will make him the emotional anchor for the rest of the film. In fact these early sequences are enough to make you think, “If this was the rest of the movie, I’d be cool with that.” And when it turns out that the rest of the movie isn’t Magneto hunting down Nazis, you are kind of bummed.
Matthew Vaughn’s Direction
If there’s one thing that keeps all of the plates of “X-Men: First Class” spinning – its multiple plot threads, myriad character introductions and thematic concerns – it’s the crackling direction of Matthew Vaughn. Anybody who saw the ultimately uneven “Kick-Ass,” knew, at the very least, that if Vaughn got his hands on some big comic book property (something he’d previously flirted with, having been attached to, at various times, “X-Men 3” and “Thor”), he was going to knock it out of the fucking park. And you know what? He did. The current crop of Marvel superhero products are largely anonymous affairs (gone are the days when auteurs like Ang Lee would be able to make oddball efforts like “Hulk”), so seeing a superhero movie with even a slight amount of personality is a huge relief. The surprise, maybe is just how many Vaughnisms – jaunty stylistic embellishments and editorial choices – made the final cut. From turning the screen into a diamond prism when White Queen Emma Frost takes over, to the training sequence which turns into comic book panels, and some particularly clever editorial tics in the final act, this is a virtual smorgasbord of artistic flourishes. And something tells us it’ll make “Captain America” all the more drab and pedestrian.
Bacon and Ham
While the biggest question of the film might be how Kevin Bacon doesn’t seem to age over the course of twenty five years (we vaguely recall a throwaway line justifying it, but it's still a little weird), there’s no doubting that his wardrobe, attitude and general swagger contributed to creating a genuinely happening, hip and memorable villain. Already Bacon’s second superhero nemesis of the year (“Super” was the first), Bacon infused the stuffy comic book creation with an irreverent attitude, both fabulously extravagant and disdainful of his earnings. The cherry on top was the movie continuity’s retconning of Shaw as a Nazi, allowing Bacon to try his impeccable German while also allowing for some goofy scenery-chewing and mustache-twirling.
Rushed Script Reeking Of First-Draft
It’s a testament to Matthew Vaughn’s direction (see above), that all the strands in “X-Men: First Class” don't collide and run aground. But that doesn’t keep the movie, at least from a script standpoint, from feeling like a hastily written and tentatively stitched together affair that could burst a seam at any moment. There are four credited writers on the film, with several more (including “Gossip Girl” writer/producer Josh Schwartz) who didn’t get credit, but it’s not that there were too many cooks in the mutant kitchen, rather, none of the ideas, be they thematic or narrative, was finessed to the point of true maturation. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone with a knowledge of the film’s ridiculously condensed, ten-month-from-start-to-completion timeframe, but it is still a shame: when you have actors as good as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender together in a movie, you’d want to be able to savour their scenes. Instead, there’s a “let’s get on with it” attitude that seems, in part, to mask the questionable plot motors – before you can ask “Why is this happening?,” there’s something new on the screen to dazzle and delight. It’s only later that you wish, in a movie that’s this overstuffed, it’d had more time to breathe -- most of the film’s best moments are the ones in which Vaughn and Goldman let exactly that happen -- e.g. Erik moving the radar dish. The dialogue seriously needed work as well: witness "mutant and proud" being repeated over and over in a hokey manner, or Kevin Bacon's "Come with me and you will live like kings... (cue meaningful look to the women present) and queens."
Thinly Drawn Mutant Teens
Even with an emphasis on the Charles/Erik conflict, Fox knew they were going to have to account for not having the top-tier characters like Cyclops and Storm in this installment. So as replacements, we’ve got third stringers like Havok and Banshee. Havok shares lineage with Cyclops in the comics, though this is never mentioned in the film, as the character is instead a petulant catchphrase-heavy juvenile with a fairly undefined laser power. Banshee, meanwhile, has the deeply-uncinematic ability to scream his enemies away and, quite arbitrarily, take flight. Along with the non-presence that is Darwin and the questionable grrl-power of otherwise-nondescript Angel (see below), there aren’t a whole lot of character beats to enjoy here, and the few grace notes given to Beast end are squandered once he transforms.
And That Goes Double For Angel
None of the B-listers' arcs are as useless, uninteresting and ultimately pointless as Zoe Kravitz’s Angel. Rescued from a stripping career, Angel’s exciting powers include: flying with her hummingbird like wings and shooting fireballs of....snot? Mucus? Volcanic ash? The screenplay doesn’t bother explaining, and this writer isn’t up on his comic lore or intrigued enough to look it up. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. In one of many examples of the rushed nature of the script, Angel seems to immediately forget about what Charles and Erik have done for her and after a single speech by Sebastian Shaw, decides to join the bad guys. She’s promptly forgotten about until she gets into an aerial battle with Banshee during the film’s finale that has zero stakes on anything happening within the plot proper. If she were cut out of the film entirely, we wouldn’t have noticed.
Following in the proud tradition of mutant redshirts, Sebastian Shaw’s mutant crew doesn’t really have much to do. Which is disappointing, as they certainly have presence -- Matthew Vaughn gets a lot of mileage from Jason Flemyng’s intimidating, devilish Azazel, while he shoots January Jones’ White Queen as if she were played by Brigitte Bardot. But Flemyng barely has any lines (just enough to reveal he’s Russian) and the wooden Jones serves as a weak sidekick with no inner motivation. Riptide, meanwhile, doesn’t get a single line, as far as we can remember. Although on the plus side, we had no idea the guy from the Black Eyed Peas could throw tornadoes.
Too Many War Room Scenes
Back in 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s wonderfully visualized underground war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” made such an impression that when Ronald Reagan, that great thinker, took office, he asked someone where the war room was located. (That “someone” was given the unenviable task of telling him that it was just something that appeared in the movie.) It’s just that Hollywood, in the years since, hasn’t gotten the message either and that image of the war room – with a large halo of lights and a giant screen displaying the impending world calamity – has been repeated incessantly. It makes sense in things like Tim Burton’s demented send-up “Mars Attacks,” but less here when the film is going for at least a semblance of historical accuracy. While “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t use the imagery as egregiously as Zack Snyder in “Watchmen” (it probably helps that there isn’t some rubbery Richard Nixon), it’s still tired and phony and way too meta. At the very, least, though, the war room sequences in 'X-Men,' which we cut away to far too often for the decision-making by the human powers-that-be, give a small showcase to sturdy character actors like Ray Wise and James Remar. Still, we suggest a ban to be placed on further war room sequences in any movie. Ever.
Maybe One Too Many Groan-worthy References
We get that the fanboys love little nods to comic continuity, but it can be a little bit overwhelming sometimes, and, while ‘First Class’ doesn’t have it as bad as, say, “Iron Man 2,” it definitely gets a bit too smart-ass. Hugh Jackman’s cameo is probably one of the film’s highlights (and, in one foul-mouthed line, he gets closer to the spirit of the character than in all five entries to date), but Rebecca Romijin’s appearance is pure fan service, seemingly aimed at fans of her portrayal of Mystique (i.e. no one), and, as the film plays fast and loose with the established continuity as it is, you suspect that a fresh start might have been smarter. Worst of all are the little throw-away lines: Xavier keeps talking about his hair in a way that we can only assume is meant to set up “X-Men Second Class: Male Pattern Baldness” in the future
Not Enough Oliver Platt
We’re not sure there’s a soul alive that doesn’t like Oliver Platt, and his casting in ‘First Class’ as the mysterious Man In Black promised a lot. And, while a little Platt is better than no Platt at all, we can’t be alone in being a little baffled at why he even bothered: he shows up, gets a couple of good line readings, but not a lot else, in the grand scheme of things, and then is abruptly killed off. And while dropping one of the most recognizable faces in the film from a height is a nice signifier as to how brutal things will get, it’s also something of a pussy’s death, the veteran character actor denied even a close-up. Platt deserves better, damn it!
The Over-Egged Score
While Vaughn somehow resisted the temptation to just buy the rights to his temp score, as he did on “Kick-Ass,” the work here by Zimmer-factory graduate Henry Jackman (“Gulliver’s Travels”) isn’t a classic superhero score by any means. It works in places -- the guitar in the Nazi-hunting sequences is pretty great -- but feels like a blustery action-score-by-numbers towards the end, the triumphalism somewhat at odds with the more complex stuff going on on screen. In his defence, he probably had about three days to write the thing, but considering the 60s retro feel, we can only dream what someone like David Holmes or Michael Giacchino could have done.
“Now Let’s Pause the Narrative for a Montage”
Even though the film is more overstuffed than Garfield after a lasagna binge, for all its action bombast and socio-political theorising, the impasse it’s been ostensibly building to over the course of two hours (the impending Cuban Missile Crisis) gets put on hold whenever the filmmakers’ feel like rushing through character introductions via everyone’s favourite hackneyed device – the montage. The first one where Erik and Charles get recruiting starts off as cute (daw, they’re saving hookers in an opium lounge) but ends up as a wearying, “let’s round up the gang” "Ocean’s Eleven"-style exercise that comes off as a lazy dramatic convenience. Hank McCoy invented Cerebro just to uncover these four mutants? Is this a humanitarian service they’re providing for lost causes, or is it all to combat Shaw? It doesn’t cohere. Plus the fact that the entire crux of the film is supposed to hang on the tension between Erik’s “Peace was never an option” and Charles’ essential pacifism gets conveniently forgotten when the two scamper about the X-mansion giggling like schoolgirls in Rocky sweats whilst getting their students to ‘discover’ themselves. Some might say having a sequence where Banshee topples off a window ledge is the light-hearted calm before the storm. Others would say, who gives a damn if Havok can’t shoot those red things out of his chest straight?
Underwritten? Perhaps. Serving largely as eye-candy rather than character? Sure. But let’s not pretend that the “Mad Men” star looked anything but totally lost among the comic-speak of “X-Men: First Class.” If Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy were examples of how to take even the most banal and expository dialogue and make it shine, January Jones didn’t seem to be up for the task. With wooden deliveries matching an equally wooden, one expression face, all of her scenes seemed to be done in one take with the actress reading her lines off cue cards twenty yards away. Granted, the production was rushed, but if this was really the best she could do, we worry about her post “Mad Men” career. She is excellent on the show (and, let’s not forget, in her breakout turn in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”), but not everyone gets a Matthew Weiner script to work with year after year. Hopefully this is a hard lesson learned for the actress, and not a sign of things to come.
The Uneven Effects
One of the great things about going to see a summer blockbuster in today’s movie climate is that we can expect to see great special effects. Or so we thought. While the grand finale with the naval ships and submarine works -- Magneto lifts the thing out of the water! -- it seems like Vaughn spent his entire effects budget on this one scene, with the rest of the film delivering VFX work that, at its worst, looked hokey. Most notable are Magneto’s powers that lift huge ship’s chains out of the water and wrap barbed wire around armed guards; the wire looks like it’s alive rather than having Magneto manipulating it to his bidding. With a budget of over $150 million, we wonder where all that money went if not to effects (it definitely wasn’t spent on January Jones’ wardrobe, that’s for sure).
Total Missed Opportunity To Dive Into The Racial/Gender Issues Of The Day
One of the reasons the X-Men have remained popular across the decades is the opportunity for subtext: they’ve been used as metaphors for virtually every oppressed minority under the sun over the years, and the openly-gay Singer made good hay of that in some of the best scenes in his opening two entries. With Singer returning as producer, and a 1960s setting that seemed made for subtext, it seemed like 'First Class' would really capitalize on these meaty themes, but it looks like Vaughn simply isn’t interested: there are a few token nods, but they’re generally ham-fisted (let’s talk about slavery, then cut to the black guy!), and entirely miss the opportunity to really bring the story in touch with the times. In the first film, during an ideological discussion between Erik and Charles, Magneto utters, “By any means necessary,” a phrase that resonates deeply amidst the specter of the civil rights movement. But by actively capturing the plight of mutants in the early 1960s, that phrase gets placed directly underneath the microscope, as we are forced to address, head-on, a fractured, alternate universe where the term “minority” takes on a different meaning. So are we to assume this is some sort of alternate reality where having red skin or shooting tornadoes is more uncomfortable than being a black man? This issue is further complicated by the fact that one of the black X-men recruits is the first to die (“I can adapt to survive any situ-I’M DEAD”) and the other is quick to join the bad guys (who also happen to include a Hispanic guy, and a red-skinned European of indeterminate origin). So you’ve successfully supplanted the civil rights movement with a story about people who can lift cars, and your primary minority characters are both useless and of arbitrarily questionable morals?
It certainly doesn’t help that the movie has a pungent whiff of misogyny, which runs toxically counter to feminist inroads being made at the time. This uneasiness starts early, as plucky CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) decides to infiltrate the Hellfire Club not through her intelligence training or particular sneakiness, but by wearing strappy underwear. Oof. The hits keep on coming as January Jones, playing a villainous mutant who could have easily overtaken her “boss," not only engages in a weird sexual liaison with a Russian official but also walks around the entire movie in thigh-highs and a micro-mini-skirt. (In a movie filled with anachronistic technology, Jones’ push-up bra gets the biggest spotlight.) Additionally, the entire character arc for Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a powerful, shape-shifting mutant, involves her looking for men who take care of her, and eventually tell her she’s beautiful. (She rewards that kind of attention by fucking Magneto and then walking around in front of Professor X naked.) And where do our heroes find Angel (Zoe Kravitz)? Working at a sleazy strip club of course! By the end of the movie, every female character has either gone over to the dark side, or has had her memory wiped without her consent. We hope that Vaughn was simply playing to the adolescent male crowd instead of forcing some icky political agenda (especially when his co-writer is Jane Goldman), but Vaughn, Goldman, and everybody at Fox should have known that girls like “X-Men” too and this kind of imagery and thematic material at best underserves them, and at worst could have a very negative effect on them. Its problematic gender politics might be the least groovy thing about “X-Men: First Class.”
Young Charles Xavier and Young Mystique Scene
As deep as we are in prequel territory with 'First Class,' we have a slight inclination to delve deeper into the mythology. Specifically, who is Xavier’s father, with the massive mansion in Westchester, fitted out with training facilities seemingly specifically meant for developing mutants? Of course, maybe he isn’t such a big deal, as, upon their first meeting, young Xavier meets Mystique and assures her she will never have to hide again (really?) and that she can even move in. Clearly, six-year-old Charles calls the shots in this joint. And, while “Son of Rambow” star Bill Milner does a decent job as Young Erik, neither Young Charles or Young Raven seem to have much chops in that scene, either.
The Short Shrift Given To Beast Post-Transformation, And The Shoddy Make-Up Job
As we said, Nicholas Hoult turns in a good performance as Hank McCoy, and, while he doesn’t get as much screen time as the three principles, he’s shaping up to be one of the most interesting characters around. And then he pursues his plan to rid himself of his monkey feet, and, in an impressive POV transformation scene, things go horribly awry. Hubris, vanity... rich material to develop the character further, right? Wrong. Maybe it’s because the Chewbacca-meets-Na’vi make-up effect is so poor (seriously, Kelsey Grammer looked much better as the same character in ‘The Last Stand’), but Hoult is all-but absent from the final couple of reels, mostly reduced to standing around on a beach watching the interesting stuff. Considering the decent set-up, a ball was definitely dropped here.
Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Cat Scott, Sam Price, Kevin Jagernauth, Oli Lyttelton