There were some who feared that the newest entry in the never-dying X-Men franchise would not be able to capture the majesty of the first two films. After the travesty of X-Men: Fight the Future and X-Men Origins: Wolves, it’s not hard to understand that fear. What had begun as a thrilling, action-packed and somewhat darker take on the comic book series, had devolved into a mess of large-scale special effects nightmares, jumbled and one-dimensional characters, and just awful, awful dialogue. In short: like a giant submarine being pulled by extreme magnetic force, the entire concept of the X-Men had run aground. If, dear reader, you are among those who had lost hope, I’m here to let you know that all is not yet lost.
Which is not to say that it’s perfect. Even now I can’t stop thinking about some of the gaping plotholes and absurdities. There are times when the movie dips into the absurd, and the two – count ’em, TWO! – references to the fact that Professor X (James McAvoy) will later be bald feel like cheap overkill. This is not to mention the pitiful way in which the group of mutants are given their super-hero names. I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that they literally drew them out of a hat. “Aw, I wanted to be Mystique,” one kids whines.
Well, it seems that we’re getting right into the complaints then. There are a lot of things in the movie which I found bothersome. The first and most obvious is the way that the secondary characters are treated; which is to say, they are as one-dimensional as they have been in the previous two films of the series. Among this original group of X-Men we have Angel, Havok, Darwin, Banshee, and the Beast. And of these characters, only the Beast is given any sort of depth beyond, y’know, being one of the X-Men. Even that is fairly shallow. His story is a parallel to Jekyll and Hyde, but the script feels it necessary to make the connection explicit by having the characters reference the Robert Louis Stevenson story directly. I’m surprised that somebody in the movie didn’t yell, “Basic Instinct!” when Emma Frost sits with her legs crossed in a huge, empty interrogation room. By the way, if you watch that clip (I apologize in advance to those of you visiting the site decades from now, the link may not be working any longer), you’re in for a fairly damning scene that won’t help turn any hearts toward the film: all stiff-as-a-board acting, flat line-readings, unexciting “action”. To get back to what I was saying, though, even though Beast is drawn with fuller lines than most of the other young guns, his internal struggle basically boils down to “I don’t want to be ugly anymore”. I would explain the ways in which the bad guys – Riptide, Azazel, the Soviets – are equally thin, but it probably goes without saying. Even the big bad boss, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) has no motivation beyond world domination. It’s sick.
But let’s not stop there. Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone), has basically the same issues as Beast does but with a little bit more emphasis because she’s closer to a key player. We get to see her mulling over her relationships, for instance, although that’s also not much of an issue because the two men in her life – Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) – make it very easy for her to choose who to side with. Xavier is stupefyingly shallow and totally unable to read the girl. I suppose one could make a case that he’s agreed never to use his telepathy in order to read her mind, but it doesn’t take a telepath to realize that constantly cluck-clucking at her hideous blue skin is not going to win you any sympathy points. Oliver Platt shows up in order to play a CIA suit whose role in the film is to, um, to… I’ll get back to you on that one. And then there’s Rose Byrne. Byrne, incidentally, does play a fairly pivotal role as far as the mechanics of the plot go, but isn’t really important in any other way. Late in the movie, she is castigated without any winking or sense of irony, for being a woman.
That said, there is something which saves the movie from being a total wreck. That something is the chemistry between the two leads, McAvoy/Xavier/Professor X and Fassbender/Erik/Magneto. I have been thinking about starting a series of television appreciations here at GlasgowtotheMovies.com, and one of the first shows that I would like to discuss is one that most have all but forgotten: “Commander in Chief”. The show was only on for a brief time, barely even able to finish one season before being axed, which is something for which I am still shaking my fist at the powers-that-be. The show was about a woman (Geena Davis) who becomes President, and the Speaker of the House (Donald Sutherland) who is her political rival. The two are fierce and bitter enemies when it comes to politics, but can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner together and smile with one another outside of business. They are enemies, but respectful of one another and in some ways they are friends. I bring this up now because First Class manages to marry that same mutually respectful air between soon-to-be rivals Professor X and Magneto. They are friends in this film, although each knows from the beginning that the other man’s goals are not in sync with his own.
And yes, though the CGI is sometimes mid-grade, the huge action setpieces are usually set off with an equally intense emotional movement (usually between Erik and Xavier) that helps to make it work. When Xavier is first trying to get his friend to hone his powers, it can be seen as something of a silly moment as he asks him to find “the place between rage and serenity”. However, the way that the men interact with one another, discussing a personal and painful memory together, it’s easy to overlook the sometimes hokey lines. The as-seen-in-the-trailer Cuban Missile Crisis is equally stunning, as both characters exhibit a wide range of emotions, from rage to disappointment to resolve to regret to understanding and so forth. Though I now think I should have seen the climax in advance, it managed to shock me. Also, though Shaw is a mostly one-note villain, his showdown with his protege/nemesis Eric is incredible for how controlled and rough it is. It’s much simpler than chaining a man to a dam and rigging it to explode, that’s for sure. And there was the odd exciting moment from a visual perspective, too; for instance, I found the training montage to be enjoyable (and more traditionally “comic-booky”, now that I think about it).
When I walked out of the theater last night I felt pretty good about X-Men: First Class. Thinking about it now, I’m afraid that the bad might just outweigh the good – although I still believe the good is strong in its own right. There are some really great moments (Magneto wrapping nameless goons up in barbed wire is pretty awesome), but I’m afraid that the film’s weaknesses, most notably its reluctance to imbue any of the characters except for Xavier and Erik with more than the bare minimum level of humanity, really hurt it in the end. I still feel that First Class is better than its two predecessors, but would have been better served by somebody who knows how to handle a large cast of characters without letting any get lost in the fold. This movie skates by with a passing grade, but really needs to knuckle down and raise its GPA in X-Men: Second Class, or else just drop out of school once and for all.