First Class Blockbuster Entertainment
The origins film X-Men: First Class (2011) is an exceptionally well made comic book adaptation with a problematic final act that stumbles on forced themes and contrivance. After the abysmal third entry that concluded the trilogy in 2006, any hopes I had left for the franchise were shattered by the subpar action and slipshod storytelling of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But faith was restored to many at the news that the promising young British writer-director Mathew Vaughn would take the reins for the prequel, which is set during a clever (if intrinsically silly) rewriting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thankfully, Vaughn’s fourth effort in the director’s chair is arguably his best film yet, delivering some of the highest quality action, most faithful characterization, and tightest writing seen in any superhero movie.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are expectedly fantastic as the young Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively. Unlike many origin stories, First Class avoids an exposition-heavy narrative by immediately delving into two separate and equally intriguing plots exploring the young mutants’ alienation as their species is born. Each early scene of Magneto’s post-Nazi Germany revenge tale is unabashedly sadistic and fun, aided by Henry Jackman’s devilish score and Kevin Bacon’s shamelessly amoral performance as the villain Sebastian Shaw. Xavier and Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) conflict of identity is handled deftly by Vaughn, and the themes of isolation and identity pains are explored with more humanity than in Bryan Singer’s first two influential films.
First Class is truly a comic book fan’s dream incarnate—there’s mutant action in almost every scene, and it’s always substantial and never superfluous. The special effects are invariably clever, and Vaughn’s direction is kinetic—when it slows for emotional pull, it quickly speeds back up to avoid sentimental indulgence. There’s a vast cast of characters, and the tight script flows their stories together seamlessly—with the exception of the CIA director (Matt Craven), who unfortunately embodies the stereotypical, unrealistic “I’m going to completely disregard the protagonist’s wisdom even though ignoring said advice defies all rationality” archetype that plagues Hollywood blockbusters. Additionally, Vaughn adds clever nuances as a tribute to the comic book medium, such as fun split-screen segments and a fantastic first-person sequence during Beast’s (Nicholas Hoult) transformation.
The skillful director perpetuates excitement and levity by instilling campy awe in the spectator throughout. He builds a spectatorial collage of tension and anticipation that is highly satisfying thanks to our privileged position where we watch the ignorant characters react with awe and fear. “What the hell did you put in my drink..” Colonel Hendry (Glenn Morshower) mutters as he and the audience witness Riptide (Álex González) build his whirlwind for the first time. “What.. the hell is that?” the young group of mutants fearfully question as Azazel (Jason Flemyng) menacingly grasps the CIA agent (Oliver Platt) in the sky during an excellent shot foregrounding the red demon before the pale, glowing moon. Humanity is discovering the mutant species for the first time in Vaughn’s prequel, and he exuberantly milks campy gallons of situational irony from his narrative.
It’s rare to find a solid Hollywood action film with a climax that’s as strong as the rising action that precedes it. Screenwriters feel the need to stretch out an action sequence longer than realism would have it depicted, often indirectly rendering their heroes impotent. In Men in Black (1997), Agent J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) stand and watch as the bug rips open the “Egar-suit,” allowing it to grow in immensity when they could have easily blown it away and cut the final fight scene by ten minutes. This climactic swelling can also try the audience’s patience and accidentally elicit laughs at its silliness. In Aliens (1986), James Cameron implements an unnecessary showdown with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the Queen Xenomorph where the audience rolls their eyes at the notion that the mightiest member of the omnipotent species could be bested by clumsy construction equipment. The one word to summarize First Class’ finale is forced. Vaughn forces his theme of mutant alienation by embodying the common Hollywood practice of antagonizing and de-rationalizing the military, exemplified when the American and Russian battleships are unified in their asinine decision to fire upon the supernaturally gifted mutants. He forces a balanced fight scene by overpowering silly mutants like Angel (Zoë Kravitz) and consequently evokes laughter by trying to depict a giant fairy within the parameters of formal realism (I mean, couldn’t one of the dozens of sailors drop her relatively slow-moving body with one well placed rifle shot?). And worst of all, Vaughn forces an attempted continuation of suspense that in its failure produces the opposite spectatorial result. The scene where the rockets approach the battleships, falling and continuing with laughable interspersed reaction shots of the imbecilic naval officers, is painful to watch. It’s too bad that he felt the need to force a lengthy, final showdown with the mutants when it was not needed.
Nevertheless, X-Men First Class is a rare treat for such a long-running franchise. In the hands of the eminently capable Mathew Vaughn, I’m ecstatic to see where he takes the series next.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars