Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’ (2011)

“X-Men: First Class” seemed like it could be the odd one out as 20th Century Fox’s entry on an ambitious slate of Marvel Comics-based movies this year. Director Matthew Vaughn turned the clock back to 1962 make an origin story/period piece, that may or may not be in continuity with previous X-films. (Indeed, I’ll be perfectly content to see “X-Men: The Last Stand” never be in continuity with anything ever again.) In the end, he assembled the most visually inspired and overall cohesive film of the franchise.

Vaughn obviously took some notes on previous efforts. Several performances and awkward moments could have used polishing. But this film has heart. Ta-Nahesi Coates said it well in his New York Times op-ed when called the film “incredible work of American historical fiction” and noted its importance amid real-world attempts to sterilize history of its less convenient complexities, and it seems like the kind of film that would make for a great pivot for talking to kids about what happened in the U.S. during the 1960s.

The vintage set designs, archive footage and costumes all came together spectacularly to make many of the scenes look like they could have been taking place during a Sean Connery-era Bond film. Vaughn successfully captured much of the magic that made Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original “Uncanny X-Men” comics work, and he managed to pull that off with an almost completely different cast of mutants.

As far as the casting goes, James McAvoy rightfully stood out from the pack as a young, hairy Professor Charles Xavier. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for January Jones as Emma Frost, who proved to be a major letdown. I write this as a dedicated “Mad Men” watcher, but Jones’ entire performance in “First Class” failed to flip a switch to take her out of Betty Draper-in-a-malaise mode and tint her with any malevolence whatsoever.

Previous X-films fell into the trap of divvying up screen-time far too equally among their stars, and “First Class” took advantage of its relatively lesser known set of faces. Although Riptide (played by Álex González) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) became nothing more than personality-less henchmen set pieces, the movie overall turned into a fine ensemble piece, with Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) all delivering exactly what they needed to.

As far as the blemishes go, there was a really odd scene worth noting toward the end (SPOILER ALERT) where Xavier suffers his fatal paralyzing injury at the hands of a stray bullet. Perhaps Magneto was only deflecting the bullets; alternatively, he may have been randomly redirecting them. Whatever the case may be, the bullet nearly flattened, either by hitting the Magnetic force field or by striking Xavier, and traveled along an odd curve to get to Xavier’s spine. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a product of some poor planning, and by the time the CGI inserted the bullets it was too late to re-shoot, but the whole scenario raised about as many questions as the physics behind the generally accepted story behind the JFK assassination.

I halfway expected a post-credits scene to show up where it turned out that Bishop or Deadpool or someone was hiding in a grassy knoll on the island during the final battle. That brings me to a couple of other points, though, in that there was no post-credits scene attached to the end of this film. That didn’t detract from what was in it, and it’s almost certainly indicative of a lack of planning for a future installment. Nevertheless, that and Stan Lee’s absentee cameo were missed.

So in the end, “First Class” did feel like the odd Marvel film out in 2011. That didn’t turn out to be a bad thing though. It was leaps and bounds above either of the modern Fantastic Four movies, and didn’t try to live by the rules and looks that have defined the Iron Man and X-Men releases that came before it. And for that, Vaughn deserves quite a bit of respect.

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