Thursday, June 02, 2011

X-Men: First Class: A Review

"A new species is being born. Help me guide it, shape it, lead it."

Professor Charles Xavier in
X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class was one of my most anticipated films of 2011 because of three reasons:
  1. Matthew Vaughn, who directed the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust and the awesome Kick-Ass, helmed it.
  2. I am an unrepentant comic geek.
  3. Michael Fassbender, who I'm a huge fan of after Inglourious Basterds and Fish Tank.
Firstly, I must admit that I'm not a great reader of Marvel comics and I am relatively unschooled in the X-Men franchise. My only exposure to them in print is the Deadpool series, the only Marvel property I have any real interest in so, I have no real canon knowledge of the origins of the X-Men, which this film is attempting to tackle. While I'm not utterly oblivious to the backstories of some of the characters, I shall review it on its own terms.

X-Men - First Class
From left to right: Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Dr. Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), Dr. Henry "Hank" McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence),and Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).

I have rather mixed feelings about X-Men: First Class. On one hand, it was a masterfully crafted piece of cinema (bar a few flaws which I shall get into later) but on the other, I felt as if I've seen this film before. In the universe of the X-Men, humans are on the brink of the next stage of evolution with mutations which give them novel superhuman abilities, often developed within one generation. The film draws parallel from the mutants coexistence with the Muggles normal human being to the period in prehistory when human being lived and bred with Homo neanderthalensis and us, being the superior and more successful species, eradicated our purportedly "less evolved" cousins.

All of this betrays the filmmakers critical misunderstanding of the process of evolution and of hominid speciation, but that's what suspension of disbelief is for. So, I promptly switched off the offending part of my brain.

The ever-present danger of prequels is that the audience more-or-less knows how it's going to end and some would argue that making one is never a very fruitful endeavour for filmmakers, but then again, the very same can be said about historical films (with the possible exception of the brilliantly subversive Inglourious Basterds), which is a disproportionately more respectable genre. First Class tells the story of the founding of the X-Men by Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. We know that the X-Men initiative will succeed. We know that Charles Xavier will one day be crippled and become as bald as Patrick Stewart. We know that ideological differences would eventually split the two friends with Erik forming a diametric brotherhood of mutants who believe that they can never live peacefully with the rest of the inferior human race. Unlike historical films however, how everything came to be is still wide open to the whims of the storyteller, and Matthew Vaughn is very well-proven in this regard.

The reason why I felt that I've already seen First Class is because the main conflict of the film is essentially the same as that of the first X-Men trilogy of films. There's a rogue band of mutants which wants to take over the world and only the X-Men stands between them and their goal. Normal human beings are fearful bigoted scums (in other words, business as usual). Instead of Ian McKellen as Magneto wearing the helm of villainy, we have Kevin Bacon's awesome sideburns in it as Sebastian Shaw. It makes me wonder, do we need yet another allegory of racism and the Holocaust using mutant superheroes no matter how well it's done? Don't get me wrong, as its own film, X-Men: First Class is almost beyond reproach and I unashamedly confess that I had a great time watching it, but my enjoyment was greatly lessened because it feels so much more like a remake than a prequel.

The rest of this review contains minor spoilers.

Sebastian Shaw Kevin Bacon
From left to right: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), January Jones' right boob, and January Jones' left boob.

Sebastian Shaw is pretty much proto-Magneto. He aspires to all of the same goals but is much less sympathetic as a character because unlike Magneto (who was a Holocaust survivor), he was a Mengelean scientist in the employ of the Nazis who discovered a young Erik Lehnsherr's ability to manipulate magnetic fields after murdering the boy's mother to provoke its manifestation. It was also uncertain in the film whether he himself was a mutant to begin with or that he managed to mutate himself after studying Magneto. Still, Kevin Bacon couldn't have done any better with the character he was given to work with.

The Arc of Magneto.

One of the best things a fictional character can do is change, and it held true throughout the history of storytelling. In Norse myths, Loki is often considered the most fascinating of all the Æsir because he shows that rarest of qualities in a mythological personage: character development. In the earlier days, he was wily and mischievous but he used his wit to help the other gods. Over time, he started displaying a mean streak before turning actively evil by arranging the murder of Balder. Another good example is the Jewish deity Yahweh who became much more popular after he was reinterpreted as his avatar, Jesus.

Charles Xavier or Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr or Magneto (Michael Fassbender)
Charles and Erik, BFFs.

Unlike Professor X, who had always been a privileged vanilla goody and mentor-type hero almost unchanging in his portrayal, Magneto lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and witnessed the butchering of millions of his people. His mother was murdered before his eyes by Sebastian Shaw, who presumably raised him as a disciple of his ideals. He then spent most of his young life hunting down and killing Nazis Munich-style to avenge his people before meeting Charles Xavier who managed to convince him to help start the X-Men and prove to normal humans that they are not the enemy. The regular humans, without going into details, proved to be utter bastards and it ultimately convinced Magneto that "peace was never an option". I believe that the true emotional heart of First Class is Erik Lehnsherr's descent into darkness, and the film did it so well that by the end, I found myself on Magneto's side rather than Professor X's. The following exchange encapsulates all of Magneto's pathos and motivations perfectly,

Professor X: Erik, you said yourself - we're the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships that are just following orders.

Magneto: I've been at the mercy of men just following orders.

As a Jew who lived through the Second World War, he rightfully fears that humanity will try to eradicate mutant-kind in a global New Holocaust, but the deep irony of Magneto's story is that he had truly become the thing he hated most. He seeks to destroy normal humans because he considers them to be evil and inferior to him and his mutant kins, which was precisely the rationale behind the Nazis' attempted genocide of the Jewish race.

While Jame McAvoy was great as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender was positively electrifying as the magnetic anti-villain, and it's amusing to note that he's basically continuing his mission in Inglourious Basterds of killing Nazis in this movie. There are times when I find it hard to tell if I want to be like him or sleep with him. Wait, did I just wrote that out black? Stupid sexy Fassbender!

Other Thoughts.

I'm sure Jennifer Lawrence is a superb actress though I've yet to see Winter's Bone, but I felt that she's a physical miscast in the role of Mystique - but given that her character arc is one of external appearances, I wonder if it was intentional. Anyhow, if I remember correctly, the theme of wanting to fit into society was also discussed in the previous films and in First Class, it was told through Mystique and Beast, who suffers from severe cosmetic manifestations of his mutation, displaying atavistic simian attributes.

Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Henry Hank McCoy  (Beast)
Pictured: special effects failure.

However, the special effects of First Class failed in conveying that Beast's appearance on screen. The make-up and facial prostheses are incredibly fake-looking - they look like they belong on a TV series rather than in a big budget summer tent-pole release. It's especially unforgivable considering how perfectly the character was portrayed in the universally vilified X-Men: The Last Stand by Kelsey Grammer. I'm also not sure if I like Nicholas Hoult's portrayal of the big blue mutant as a stereotypical awkward dork rather than the erudite man of the Renaissance we knew him as. However, his hand-to-hand fight with Azazel was completely bad-ass, and it absolved him of most of his sins in my book.

The nature and limit of Sebastian Shaw's superpowers were also poorly defined and I actually had to Wiki it in order to find out what they are. I can't help feeling that he is only as powerful as the plot demands. Azazel also appears in this film as one of Sebastian Shaw's followers and I don't think he even had a single line in this entire film. Nightcrawler, a fan favourite after his introduction in X2, is supposedly a son he sired with Mystique. Azazel, who shares the same teleportation ability, fights like his son did but there was nothing in First Class which really matched the awesomeness of the opening scene in X2 but it more than made up for it with the epic climactic action setpiece at sea near Cuba.

X-Jet in X-Men - First Class
The X-Jet off the coast of Cuba.

And you know what? They actually managed to make the blue and yellow costume of the X-Men work in this film, probably owing it to the era the film's set in. The 1960's is a lot more forgiving of cheesiness after all. I can't say the same for Magneto's pimped-out final costume though.

A Wrap-up.

If you have not seen the previous X-Men films, you are definitely going to enjoy this more than I did because as summer blockbusters go, X-Men: First Class does not shy away from the hard topics and societal commentary which the franchise is famous for - and I daresay First Class is the best one to do it yet. At the same time, it also embraced (to a degree) the campiness of its comic book roots. The performances of the leads are top-notch all around and the relationship between the Charles and Erik was interpreted with the utmost care and seriousness it deserves.

By all counts, it's a first-class movie indeed. Like I said, my only real reservation is that it's really just an old story retold. By the way, it's going to be a trilogy. What's the next one going to be called? X-Men: First Class: Second Semester?

P.S. There is no post-credits scene. However, I was informed that occasional commenter and film blogger Sebastian Ng's name should appear amongst the visual effects credits - which I missed. It'll be great if anyone can help me (and him) verify that. It's verified. Just look out for the dozens of Malaysian names under the visual effects company, Rhythm and Hues.

Gay for Fassbender,
k0k s3n w4i


ASCII said...

Umm.. Jan Jones' left boob is on her right side, and her right boob on her left side.

Manipal, er?

Phoebs said...

DID YOU EVEN SEE JANUARY JONES' ABS!!??? T____T im so gonna get those even if i have to starve an entire year for it!!! :'( michael fassbender didn't show butt T^T but he did speak a foreign language though. hehe

goingkookies said...

LOL. An excellent write up. Lengthy but I read till the end! =)

Really sums up the whole show that i might as well put your summary in my blog and link back to you instead of writing it from my point of view cos you write how I feel so much more better!

k0k s3n w4i said...

ASCII: thanks for pointing out the typo. fixed it. it's easy to slip up once you envision them as being individuals apart from the actress. and you make it sound as if they taught right is left and vice versa at manipal.

Phoebs: i'm not a fan of january jones, sorry. i'm far more attracted to michael fassbender.

goingkookies: glad you approve :) what i write are usually more movie discussions rather than movie reviews, hence their lengthiness.


As a Jew who lived through the Second World War, he rightfully fears that humanity will try to eradicate mutant-kind in a global New Holocaust, but the deep irony of Magneto's story is that he had truly become the thing he hated most. He seeks to destroy normal humans because he considers them to be evil and inferior to him and his mutant kins, which was precisely the rationale behind the Nazis' attempted genocide of the Jewish race.

- Do you know that you have become the thing that you hate??? *PUKES*