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Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Premise: A prequel to the X-Men series. A young Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gather together the first generation of mutants and join forces with the CIA to prevent the Cuban missile crisis from fomenting into a nuclear war.

What Works: First Class is by far the best film in the X-Men series, even surpassing the impressive X2: X-Men United. Although the characters possess god-like powers, the film humanizes its lead characters and makes them sympathetic and likable. The reality of the characters sells the illusion of the fantastic, and First Class does this exceptionally well, especially among the young mutants who interact not as larger than life superheroes deliberating in the Fortress of Solitude or brooding in the Batcave but as youths bonding in dormitory. As an entry in the X-Men franchise, First Class surpasses its predecessors by nailing the countercultural themes of the series and balancing character and plot development with the kind of requisite action scenes and special effects that this kind of film demands. Like the better films in the superhero genre, such as Superman: The Movie, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man, First Class realizes the potential of comic book characters to metaphorically act out very real issues and anxieties through fantastical characters and situations. Something this film does quite brilliantly is to link the development of the X-Men with one of the defining events of the 1960s: the Cuban missile crisis. By grafting the superhero story onto this generation defining event, the film connects the past (First Class) with the present (the original three X-Men films) in a way that has interesting political implications for the series. Specifically, First Class connects the optimism of Dr. Xavier and his burgeoning mutant school with the optimism of the 1960s, embodied by President John F. Kennedy, and that optimism runs headlong into the realities of fear and prejudice and eventually ends in a chaotic situation in which temporary problems have been solved but greater long term challenges have emerged. The relationship that is key to the film, and which articulates this underlying theme quite well, is the triangular bond between Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Professor X is the liberal humanist, believing optimistically in the potential of humanity but his sheltered upbringing has made him naïve; Magneto is the hardened cynic who cannot see beyond the abuse he has incurred and he is doomed to become the very thing he fights against; Mystique is the disenfranchised youth looking for a place to belong and is torn between the ideologies that Professor X and Magneto embody. X-Men: First Class handles this relationship quite well and the push and pull between the characters and what they represent elevates First Class to the upper echelons of its superhero genre and makes an altogether smart, fun, and insightful drama.

What Doesn’t: There are two notable weaknesses about First Class. First, the dialogue tends to get a little obtuse in key dramatic moments, especially in the lines written for Magneto. Actor Michael Fassbender does a great job with the role, but at times his performance is hampered by dialogue that is too bombastic and expository. The other flaw of First Class is its inconsistency with previous X-Men films. The climax of First Class very obviously contradicts key features of the prologue sequence of X-Men: The Last Stand and Professor Xavier’s cameo in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This is ultimately a minor flaw in what is an excellent standalone film. 

Bottom Line: X-Men: First Class is not just an excellent comic book film, but a terrific movie altogether. Its storytelling and characters are as vibrant and as interesting as anything is so-called “respectable” filmmaking and among comic book films it ranks in the top tier of its genre.

Episode: #343 (June 12, 2011)