The Herald Bulletin

June 2, 2011

Review: 'First Class' a class act

By Heather Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

— Hollywood should pack it in for the summer. Move “Green Lantern” to December. Keep “Captain America” on ice. And don’t even think about unleashing the “Transformers.” It’s going to take a film on par with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to surpass Matthew Vaughn’s exhilarating “X-Men: First Class.”

BACKGROUND: The X-Men, a superhero team composed of individuals with powers created by genetic mutations, were created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. The team first appeared in “The X-Men #1” in September 1963.

The mutants made their first appearance on the big screen in 2000’s “X-Men,” directed by Bryan Singer. The film was a critical hit and earned a respectable box office of $296 million worldwide. “X2: X-Men United” arrived three years later, again under Singer’s guidance. Critics  heavily praised the film, and its take swelled to $407 million worldwide.

Fortunes began to change for the X-Men with 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Singer was out. Vaughn was in. Then Vaughn was out, and Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) was in. The box office still gained, soaring to $459 million. However, the film’s mess of mutants soured many X-Men fans on the franchise and overwhelmed the typical moviegoer.

Things got no better with 2009’s critically panned “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” And this time it hurt at the box office. “Wolverine” fell more than $100 million worldwide, taking in just $373 million.

For the fifth film , Fox called upon Singer (producer) and Vaughn  (director) to reinvent and reinvigorate the X-Men franchise.

SYNOPSIS: Before Professor X and Magneto were archenemies, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were young men of the 1960s just discovering the depth of their unique powers and finding that there were others like them. When the world faces a threat unlike any it has seen before, Charles and Erik band together and, along with their new group of friends, take on the powerful force threatening to tear the globe apart. They are a team -- until a rift spurred by conflicting views of the world sends them down very different paths.

THE GOOD,THE BAD AND THE UGLY: “First Class” is one of those films it pains reviewers to write about … because there is no way to encapsulate what one has seen into a few measly words. The best review one can give is to simply say “GO SEE THE MOVIE.”

But there are those of you who will still need reasons, rationalizations.

So, GO because … “First Class” somehow seamlessly melds the 1960s, James Bond and modern filmmaking into a fascinating ride through an era of change and paranoia. The costumes, makeup, styling and sets are spot on. And Vaughn captures it all in stunning color and clarity.

GO  because … you will rarely see performances like this in summer fare. The film is truly an ensemble, but a few performances deserve recognition.

Kevin Bacon shows a dark side as Sebastian Shaw without twirling his mustache with too much gusto. January Jones slips into the diamond skin of Emma Frost and easily delivers the telepath’s cold and calculating personality. And James McAvoy provides young Professor X with a quick wit, infectious smile and set of soulful blue eyes.

But the real standout is Michael Fassbender as young Magneto. He shares the steely demeanor of Daniel Craig’s Bond -- a mask controlling a raging fire underneath. And yet, at appropriate moments, he is light-hearted, funny and sincere.  Though scary -- particularly in a scene in Argentina -- certainly suits him. He no doubt will be at the top of short lists for upcoming lead roles. And Oscar talk, however unlikely, would be warranted.

GO because … this is a band of mutants worthy of getting to know. Many of  the problems with “Last Stand” stemmed from too many mutants. “First Class” has no shortage of mutants, but they are more than their powers. We learn about who they are as people -- their fears, their insecurities, their desires. A lot like Singer’s first two films.

Go because … This isn’t the time to tire of the X-Men franchise. For a prequel, the film is remarkably fresh and seems to have learned from its predecessors’ mistakes. It’s funny, and engaging, and suspenseful, and heartfelt.

Oh, just go already.

THE FINAL SCORE: As unlikely as it seemed when this film was coming together and even as we approached its release, “X-Men: First Class” may be the best of the four major comic book releases this summer. It may even be the best film of the summer. Vaughn has laid down the gauntlet. It will take one heck of a film to answer the challenge.

EXTRAS: While there are no extra scenes following the film’s conclusion or credits, the movie has plenty of cameos to thrill Marvel fans and genre geeks alike. Keep you eyes open.


"X-Men: First Class" is rated PG-13 and has a run time of 132 minutes.