X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011, directed by Matthew Vaughn, 132 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK Certainly a step up from the last X-Men installment in 2006, the somewhat lush X-Men: First Class has so many intriguing elements I’m surprised how its impression vaporized once the film was over. The film is not without ideas: you’ve got the origin of the conflict between one-time friends Magneto and Professor X, the story of the mutant group’s birth, you’ve got Nazi Germany, Las Vegas, the Cuban missile crisis and January Jones decked out in leather like a refugee from Barbarella. Directed by British Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass), the film attempts to whip these elements into a James Bond-like adventure, which despite such expensively-designed packaging feels more like A View to a Kill than Goldfinger.
Starting out in a Nazi concentration camp we find mutant Sebastian Shaw (a sneering villain turn for Kevin Bacon) as he encourages young Erik Lensherr (the future Magneto) to use his magnetic powers by holding Erik’s mother at gunpoint. Young Erik folds under the pressure and Shaw kills his mother, setting up the film’s quest for revenge. Concurrently, young Charles Xavier (the future Professor X) meets Raven (the shape-changing future Mystique) and invites the orphaned mutant to live with his family. Charles and Raven (who grow up to be James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence) are soon sought out by the C.I.A. to deal with Cold War chicanery Sebastian Shaw is fomenting around nuclear missiles in Turkey. Xavier begins to recruit other mutants to help in his cause, soon crossing paths with our lovably maladjusted mutant gang and the now grown-up Erik (now Michael Fassbender) who is searching for Shaw to avenge his childhood torture..
Bryan Singer, on-board as an Executive Producer, has handed the directing reins in the series to Matthew Vaughn, who is able to insert a little humor and occasional pop snap into the proceedings without finding his own visual style. With the majority of the action taking place in 1962, the film gives itself license to take on a sixties Pop sheen, yet the fashions remain somewhat muted throughout, with January Jones’ (of Mad Men) white leather go-go outfit stealing the show and propping up her usual slightly disconnected performance.
It’s disappointing the production doesn’t commit more energy to the period design, but like the film as a whole, X-Men: First Class is shy about committing to any interesting ideas. The flirtation between Mystique and her foster brother Charles Xavier goes nowhere, the Nazi era is just a convenient background and the missile crisis finale finds little of the contemporary resonance the series has provided in the past. Despite having a raft of first-rate actors (particularly McAvoy and Fassbender at the lead) X-Men: First Class colorless script seems more dedicated to laying the groundwork for the next edition than locating the drama or politics of this one. When it comes to Marvel adaptations, the studio seems more willing to add a little daring personality to characters like Thor and Iron Man, figuring if things go south they can always give them a quick reboot ala The Hulk.
Conversely, X-Men is already a proven moneymaker and their unwillingness to allow any one person to put their stamp on the series (like Christopher Nolan did with the Batman franchise) has left this empty epic feeling too much like the filmmaking of bland consensus. It reminds me that the original X-Men comic was the invention of just two guys, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee and comic art legend Jack Kirby in 1963. Adding six writers and seven producers to this creation story has only watered-down the compelling vision of a Pop Art comic book masterpiece, leaving us with just another forgettable fake-event blockbuster.