X-Men: First Class Review
X-Men: First Class, if you didn't know by now, takes us back to the formation of Marvel's famed mutant organisation. With X3 having brought the curtain down on the original lineage of X-Men flicks and Wolverine safely established in a franchise of his own, 20th Century Fox turned to the British writer/director team of Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn to start the series anew, backed by producer Bryan Singer.
As with the first film, the movie starts with a rain-soaked Polish concentration camp during WWII, as a boy is separated from his parents and, in his agitated state, exhibits an extraordinary power to bend metal to his will. One of the doctors at the camp takes a keen interest in young Erik Lensherr's abilities, and we then cut to another two young mutants. Charles Xavier finds Raven, a curious shapeshifter, raiding the fridge in his palatial Westchester, NY family home, and he takes the girl under his wing as we next see them at Oxford University together in the early Sixties, Charles using his telepathic powers to do little more than pull the birds.
Xavier's studies in genetics (chat-up lines aside) soon attracts the attention of the CIA, chiefly agent Moira MacTaggert, who has recently seen some 'unusual' things while investigating the shady Hellfire Club. Lensherr has been doing some investigating of his own, criss-crossing the world in an effort to find and kill the evil doctor from the camp. Meanwhile, tensions are heating up between the US and Russia over the placement of their respective nuclear arsenals, and all the threads converge around one man: Sebastian Shaw, a powerful energy-absorbing mutant who, with his band of evil acolytes, plans to lead mutantkind as the dominant species on the planet once the fallout settles.
The movie licks along at a brisk pace, and while some may bemoan the slightly choppy narrative I found it to be very refreshing, because too many 'event' films outstay their welcome these days. The action scenes aren't prolonged to the point of boredom and they're staged crisply and cleanly, in fact it's fair to say that there isn't a great deal of action in the movie at all. It's the moments of stillness or quiet introspection that pack the biggest punch, because this is very much a character-driven film. The part where Xavier unlocks Lensherr's potential by accessing a treasured memory is one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the entire X-Men series, perhaps even in the entire Marvel movie oeuvre. There's some wry humour too, with a memorable cameo from a series regular and a very funny moment with a new recruit leaping from a window that recalls Kick-Ass, Vaughn's previous film.
The emphasis on character rather than shouty-bang-bang CG nonsense would be for nought if the actors weren't up to the task, but - as with the original films - they've hired proper thesps for the key roles, rather than blank-faced everymen with mass-market audience appeal. James McAvoy once again hides his Scottish accent impeccably and projects a real air of authority as the swinging young Xavier, and Michael Fassbender is mesmerising as Lensherr/Magneto, burning up the screen as he blazes a trail of revenge while searching for his Nazi torturer. His accent sometimes wavers and reveals his native Irish lilt, mostly in the reshot scenes, but in the main his voice reminds me of another of Ireland's famous sons: Stephen Boyd, who also had a smooth mid-Atlantic twang that belied the darkness beneath it. Jennifer Lawrence is plenty earnest as Raven/Mystique, but her inevitable swing towards the dark side is telegraphed all too soon. Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw as a bon viveur, at turns suave and savage in a role which could've so easily descended into scenery-chewing.
Most of the other characters, such as the new mutants who are rounded up, vary from slightly undercooked to downright raw, but that's the nature of an ensemble cast like this; there will always be a focus on certain characters at the expense of others. Rose Byrne brings her striking beauty to the role of Moira MacTaggert, but without any mutie powers she's merely a passenger as the film draws to its conclusion (no matter that she plays a crucial role during the climactic scene, which is the exception that proves the rule). Jason Flemyng looks suitably badass as the devilish Azazel, and while January Jones' performance as Emma Frost has received derision across the board, she's not bad bad in this viewer's opinion. Vacant and distracted yes, but the character is a diamond-hard telepath after all. Perhaps her attentions are focussed elsewhere? I know mine are, thanks to the scandalous outfits she wears.
Taking Miss Jones' contribution as my cue, let me say that the movie isn't perfect. There are too many montages during the middle section of the film, and the scene where the young mutants show each other their powers and give themselves names is clunky exposition at its worst. The part where Xavier visualises Shaw smugly placing a missile onto a giant map of Cuba is very cheesy too. And, as mentioned, the swift storytelling means that the movie can sometimes flit from place to place a little too quickly, but if you pay attention then you should be able to glean enough information to join the dots.
The CG effects have taken a fair bit of flack too, but - as with a lot of maligned effects over the years - most of it looks terrific to me. When a legend like John Dykstra's name is attached to a film, his contributions do not disappoint. Sequences like Mystique's transitions, Emma Frost's diamond form, Hank's POV transformation into Beast and the submarine lift are great, and while there are some digital duffers like the drop-and-roll of the submarine they're few and far between. There's a key scene between Shaw and Lensherr early on which is full of practical effects as the lad unleashes his power but it's played in such a breezy manner that it's camp rather than horrifying, in spite of the physical effects (the two guards in the scene who get their helmets crushed (fnarr) seem to have been transported from the bit in Raiders when the Ark is opened). My point being that it's not what you use, but how you use it.
First Class shares in the time-honoured prequel tradition of joining up perfectly with certain events, and throwing others completely out of the window. What makes some of the more egregious flubs a little harder to swallow is that there are so many blatant callbacks to the prior films, with two delicious cameos from former X alums and the re-use of some of the concentration camp footage from X-Men. Actually, it goes out of its way to disregard anything beyond X2, so perhaps First Class' ignorance of those matters is more wilful abandonment than sheer incompetence. Let us not forget that Singer AND Vaughn left the production of X3 at certain points, which perhaps adds more credibility to the post-X2 amnesia theory. In any case, aside from a couple of minor details First Class dovetails very nicely indeed with Singer's movies (although it could do with a sequel or two to avoid the instant repetition of the concentration camp scene) and Brett Hackner's effort and the dire Wolverine spin-off can go **** themselves.
Unfortunately First Class didn't rake in as much moolah as its two immediate predecessors but it still garnered a respectable amount, and Fox would be mad not to show us more of Charles and Erik's early battles. Tying the story into established historical events is one way of working around the main problem of prequels - we already know that certain characters will survive - because it adds an intriguing angle to the proceedings, and it'll be interesting to see where they go next. But for the love of God, don't finish the movie with a Take That song next time.
Matthew Vaughn is a sucker for the anamorphic process a.k.a. Panavision, and this splendid 2.35 widescreen presentation is a vindication of that preference. The image is crisply detailed and spotlessly clean, with deep blacks and consistent colour which, thanks to the groovy neo-1960s setting, doesn't fall foul of the horrible modern trend towards teal and yellow (and there are none of the grading problems which plagued Kick-Ass). There's no edge enhancement whatsoever. Visible grain is very fine indeed, and there are no compression nasties to report thanks to this spacious AVC encode.
People may find the artefacts of the anamorphic glass to be somewhat off-putting, like the streaking blue lens flares and the occasionally obvious softness at the edges of the frame, but for me it's all part of the charm. I've read posts on certain forums from people who actually think that the blue lens flares are some sort of problem with the transfer or encode; I can assure you that they're supposed to be there, so please, don't adjust your television set.
For my money, this is just about as good as it gets.
The movie gets the regulation lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 treatment, and the mix is competent but rarely spectacular. Dialogue is always intelligible, there's plenty of bass during the right moments and Henry Jackman's decent score comes across nicely. The rears do what's expected of them during the action scenes but during the quiet moments the sound field is quite subdued. Still, it's a very solid effort.
There's a notable omission in that there's no commentary from Vaughn, which is a shame as he's someone who doesn't pull his punches and usually provides a very insightful chat track. The Children of the Atom documentary is a fine alternative though, running for nearly 70 minutes and presented in HD. It looks at various phases of the film's production, from writing, casting, special effects, costume design and so on, with contributions from all the main players both in front of and behind the camera. The typical English candour of Vaughn and his cohorts is evident, and the profanity-laden bit where composer Henry Jackman tells us how he came up with Magneto's theme is comedy gold. Jackman's music is available as an Isolated Score in Dolby Digital 5.1. At the end credits, keep listening past the blessed silence where that bloody Take That song would normally play and you'll hear a different cue than what's playing on the movie audio track.
The movie was knocked together too quickly to allow for wholesale changes to the story after the fact, so the 13 Deleted Scenes are mere fragments. There are some brief extensions to the training sequences and a little more humanity and brutality from Lensherr, plus a look at Charles and Moira getting to know each other a bit better. The scenes run for 12 minutes in total and are encoded in HD. The interactive Cerebro Mutant Tracker presents a sequence of mutants which you can access further information on by pressing enter on the remote control, this takes you to a short montage of their scenes from this & prior films and then a brief bio. It's mildly diverting for a couple of minutes.
X-Men: First Class is an enjoyable slice of comic-book fun. It doesn't reinvent the superhero wheel but it's nicely balanced between light and dark, hitting the right beats at the right times to provide a couple of hours of solid entertainment. The Blu-ray has excellent picture quality and reliable audio, although the extras are a bit disappointing; the documentary is terrific but the other stuff is instantly forgettable. I smell a double dip coming, for now though this release will be enough for most fans.