"First Class" shows potential

"First Class" shows potential

Posted by Sean Stangland on Fri, 06/03/2011 - 17:55

"X-Men: First Class" earns high marks indeed, but leaves plenty of room for improvement.

The X-Men have long been my favorite comic book heroes, because their essential story is inherently fascinating. Their mutated bodies have given them superhuman abilities, but humankind chooses to shun them, not celebrate them. Their struggle isn't just against the human world, but against each other: Should they strive for the world's acceptance, or take what is rightfully theirs by any means necessary?

Created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, "X-Men" has unmistakable parallels to America's civil rights movement, with Professor X playing MLK to Magneto's Malcolm X. Coming along when it does, the film franchise has always played more as an allegory for gay rights, particularly in 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand," in which the government tried to make all mutants "normal" with a miracle drug.

Dressing up the battle for human rights as a superhero saga is a concept so ripe with potential that I can't help but be disappointed that, five entries into the X-Men franchise, none of the films have truly capitalized on it. One of the subplots of "First Class" involves two characters coming to grips with their mutations and their appearances, but it's really just a sideshow for the hardware and the visual effects.

And while I don't think it was a conscious decision, it's hard not to notice that "First Class" ends with a team of heroes that is 100 percent white and, presumably, heterosexual. There are but two African-American characters in the film: one is the first of our heroes to die, and the other proves to be a turncoat. (I won't even try to dissect what it means that shapeshifter Mystique, whose natural skin is scaly and blue, decides that the most beautiful form she could assume is that of a blonde, white girl.)

Maybe I'm expecting too much from superhero movies, and you can blame Christopher Nolan for that. But perhaps "First Class" director Matthew Vaughn, who last gave us "Kick-Ass," can engender enough good will with this film that the studio will really let him go for the jugular with the next one -- assuming there is a next one.

All that being said, I didn't dislike "First Class" -- quite the opposite. I'd put it slightly ahead of Bryan Singer's "X2," and the first hour outshines everything the franchise had previously given us. Much of it plays like a Cold War spy thriller whose main characters just happen to have superpowers. Set in 1962, the film looks like the period and all of the actors are pitch perfect. Even January Jones, whom I loathe as Betty Draper in "Mad Men," won me over as diamond-encrusted femme fatale Emma Frost. (Perhaps that's because she wears nothing but underwear in most of her scenes. Hmm.)

But the movie belongs to James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, whose takes on Professor X and Magneto prove how uninterested I had become in Wolverine. Fassbender, who you may remember as the British film critic-turned-military man in "Inglourious Basterds," gets the meatiest scenes and gives the best performance. Here, as the concentration camp survivor who discovers he can manipulate metal, Fassbender is once again hunting Nazis. One early scene even pays homage to the basement bar sequence from "Basterds," and it's the most intense and satisfying passage of the film.

An unexpected standout is Kevin Bacon, who doesn't strike me as the supervillain type. We first meet his Sebastian Shaw in a scene of surprising cruelty that is performed entirely in German. When next see him, he looks younger, speaks English, and is hosting what looks to be a swingers party in a Las Vegas nightclub. No matter the circumstance, Bacon is cold and creepy, and is never winking at the audience.

("First Class" does have a couple of winks at the audience that, while fun in the moment, ultimately blur this film's place in the franchise. Is it a reboot or a prequel? The plot suggests the former, but the two scenes in question suggest the latter. You'll know them when you see them.)

The supporting cast is solid, too: "Winter's Bone" Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence is positively cherubic as Mystique; the now-grown-up star of "About a Boy," Nicholas Hoult, is endearingly nerdy as Hank McCoy; and the small parts are populated by a veritable who's-who of character actors. (Look, there's Aaron, the Secret Service agent from "24"! Hey, isn't that the costume-shop owner from "Eyes Wide Shut"?) One of the biggest laughs in the movie (for me, anyways) was the simple reveal of the actor captaining the American fleet in the big action climax.

Like all the films in the series, "First Class" tries to juggle more characters than it should, and suffers from radical shifts in tone. But Vaughn succeeds in giving us a unique film in a genre that could use some shaking up. Thankfully for the audience, the X-Men don't exist in the Avengers' universe, so Vaughn can focus solely on his film and his characters instead of setting up (ahem, advertising) other films. "Thor" and "Iron Man 2" wore out their welcome by devoting too much of their bloated running times to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel fanboy in-jokes; when "First Class'" 130 minutes came to a close, I wanted more.

Hopefully we'll get it -- and hopefully it will finally live up to this franchise's full potential.

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