It's been a while since I've posted anything. That's because my dad and I were visiting the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. for a week. This review is probably a bit late - the movie's been out for like 4 weeks now. I had intended to get this posted a few weeks ago, but didn't get it finished before leaving for Washington. So I'm posting it now. The advantage of that is that I don't have to feel as bad about all the spoilers that this review contains, because most people have probably already seen this movie.
But yeah, SPOILER ALERT: this review contains lots of spoilers. Read at you're own risk.
Comic book fans have had a lot to be excited about these last ten years or so. After decades of mediocre-at-best comic book movies, and the one exceptional Tim Burton Batman movie, the onslaught of surprisingly good comic book movies in the early 2000’s has been a pleasant surprise. Excellent films such as Spider-Man 2, X-2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Watchmen, and the underrated Edward Norton Incredible Hulk have been undercut by a relative minority of abysmal films such as X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, and the crappy Eric Bana Hulk movie. But the turbulent up-and-down nature of comic book films makes it very hard to know what to expect when you buy that $10 movie ticket. Are you going to get Batman Begins? Or Superman 4? Iron Man 2? Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine?
Going into this summer, we have a handful of comic movies to look forward to with anticipation and anxiety. Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern, and Captain America all debut this summer. So far, Marvel has done an outstanding job with the movies made by its relatively new in-house studio. Thor already turned out to be a good-but-not-great movie (in my opinion), and so I expect a lot with X-Men and Captain America.
A fast-paced, but smooth ride
X-Men 3 was an abysmal mess of a movie. It starts by teasing the audience into thinking it is going to have sentinels. And who doesn’t want to see super-powered mutants fighting giant robots? Sentinels could have easily been included in X2. But the writers opted out of that to keep things simple and clean – probably a good thing. But X3 also scimped out on giving us a real showdown with sentinels, only try to cram three distinct X-Men storylines into one hour-and-a-half movie. Big mistake.
I was kind of worried that X-Men: First Class would follow the same mistake. After all, this is an origins story. So we have to go through the obligatory character set-up stages for each character. As such, First Class follows a very rapid pacing in its story-telling. But it never feels rushed. And it doesn't sucumb to the need for mindless action and violence. It's a fairly well thought-out movie. Everything has a purpose and a reason. The multitude of characters is easy to keep track of and the interweaving plot-lines are simple to follow and connect fairly well. The movie even steals subplots and themes from X3 and manages to use them to much greater success – such as a mutant “cure”.
The rapid pacing of the movie does hurt the film slightly though. Most of the focus of the film is on Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique. So we never have a chance to really get to know the large cast of colorful characters or the actors portraying them. This is especially disappointing considering that the three characters that do receive the majority of the film’s development are three characters that we are already very familiar with, as they have all been in all the previous X-Men films (except Wolverine). It would have been nice to have been able to spend more time with Hank McCoy or Alex Summers. And I'm sure there are plenty of January Jones fans who are wishing her character (Emma Frost) had been given more screen time - but not because of her acting talents....
Some lack of detailed character development is not a critical flaw in the movie, however, since the writing does a good job of establishing the motivations of most of the characters. You may think that the movie is about Xavier’s formation of the X-Men, but really it is about Eric becoming Magneto. Being a lifelong victim of persecution, he knows that humans will always fear mutants, even if they stop a nuclear war. This fear is confirmed by Soviet Russia and the United States putting aside their differences and jointly attacking him, even though he just saved both countries from mutual annihilation. He also understands that Xavier will not let him kill if it can be avoided, so his use of Shaw’s telepathy-blocking helmet makes sense considering Magneto’s single-minded desire for violent revenge.
On the other side of the coin, Xavier has plenty of opportunity in this movie to see first-hand how unchecked mutant powers can rightfully lead humans to fearing mutants. So his desire to found a school dedicated to helping mutants control their powers seems like a natural step.
Mystique is central to one of the movie’s core motifs: the compulsion of many mutants to try to hide who and what they really are from a fearful and prejudiced society, and how that affects them. She’s the centerpiece for the allegorical anti-prejudice themes. The dialogue between Mystique and Hank McCoy mirrors the conflict within Rogue in the first and third X-Men movies. Over the course of the movie, Mystique gradually comes to realize that most people only accept her for the person she pretends to be, rather than appreciating her for what she truly is.
She makes the decision to join with the one person who does seem to appreciate what she is, even though she knows he will be a negative influence on her. So when she chooses to side with Magneto rather than her “brother” Xavier, we can understand that she does so because she realizes that Xavier only respects her for what he wants her to be, and Magneto likes her for what she is. Oh, and Magneto was willing to sleep with her (in her natural form), whereas Xavier wasn’t. Xavier’s loss.
I thought that the movie does a very good job of leading the characters to the decisions that they inevitably make, rather than just shoe-horning them into those decisions because “that’s what they are supposed to do.”
I was also pleased with the integration of the politics of the mutant phenomenon with the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And Kevin Bacon made for a surprisingly compelling villain in his portrayal of Sebastian Shaw of the Hellfire Club.
As a movie, being judged on its own merits, I think X-Men: First Class is another well-executed success in the Marvel filmology. However, as a comic book purist, the movie doesn’t stand up to some deeper scrutiny on some of the more fundamental levels.
A pillar of the X-Men mythos is missing
X-Men is a story of overcoming prejudice and bigotry. It is an allegory for racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other form of discrimination that you can think of, as well as for the changes that people go through during adolescence. But the racism allegory is only the central supporting pillar of the X-Men mythos. There are also numerous supporting pillars that make the story what it is. Without these pillars, X-Men stops being X-Men and becomes something else.
One of the core tenants of the X-Men storyline is the deep friendship and mutual respect that Xavier and Magneto have for one another. In the comics, these two met as collegues at a Hollocaust survivor’s clinic in Israel without knowing that each other was a mutant. They worked together as friends for (at least) months or years – long enough for Xavier to fall in love with Gabrielle Haller in the meantime.
They then part and go their separate ways when Magneto attempts to kill a HYDRA agent for kidnapping Gabrielle, Xavier stops him, and they realize that their approaches to the relationship between mutants and humans are incompatible.
In X-Men: First Class, Xavier meets Lehnsherr while Lehnsherr is risking his own life in a futile attempt to murder Sebastian Shaw in a fit of vengeance. They then team up to train a team of mutants for about two weeks, then separate when Xavier tries to prevent Lehnsherr from killing Shaw and the American and Soviet fleets team up to wipe out all the mutants who just saved the world from nuclear war.
So while First Class stayed faithful to the reason why Xavier and Magneto separated, it fails miserably at establishing the deep-seated, long-term friendship between the two that is a fundamental pillar on which the X-Men story stands. In this movie, they knew each other for two weeks! Maybe three. And during that time, they are focusing on training half a dozen other mutants on how to use their powers. This isn’t enough time to establish the type of relationship that Xavier and Magneto have.
Granted, Xavier and Lehnsherr have some significant bonding moments in this movie, such as Xavier tapping into long-lost joyful memories of Lehnsherr’s childhood that he had forgotten he had and helps Lehnsherr to regain a part of his humanity. Xavier teaches Lehnsherr how to tap into a sense of peace and calm to use his powers, rather than exclusively relying on rage and fear. While at the same time, Xavier reads Lehnsherr’s mind and becomes intimately familiar with the struggles of Erik’s life and why he behaves the way he does.
We're supposed to expect that two weeks, some mutant power training, and a few chess games later, these two people are BFFs?
But all this same stuff is going on with the other mutants. The movie just doesn't focus it's attention on those events. It only shows us brief clips of the mutant-training that goes on by day in the form of montages, but then gives us longer, more drawn out sequences for the Xavier-Lehnsherr interactions by night. So it just sort of pretends that there is more going on between those two. In the grand scheme, Xavier’s relationship with Lehnsherr isn’t any more intimate or respectful than his relationship with any of the other mutants who he’s training. He reads their minds, is familiar with their struggles, and helps them to control their powers too. Just like he does with Lehnsherr.
Furthermore, Xavier and Lehnsherr meet in conditions that are not conducive to the two of them creating such a respectful relationship. Their contradictory viewpoints and objectives are apparent from the moment they met! Their relationship starts off adversarialy. The friendship between Xavier and Lehnsherr is one of the few areas of the movie that feels forced and artificial, but it is one of the most important aspects of the X-Men mythos. In their first encounter, Xavier realizes how powerful Magneto is, and is just taking advantage of Lehnsherr to achieve his own goals.
In fact, that's what Xavier is doing throughout the whole movie - with just about everyone he meets. He uses them to forward his own agenda.
In addition, he is completely incapable of relating to the mutants with physical deformities. He goes around promoting mutant equality and openness, but at the same time tells Mystique that she is only pretty when she's mimicing normal human form, and that he wouldn't have sex with her when she's all blue.
This all makes Xavier come off as a bit of a dick. But not in the way that Mystique was hoping ;) ;)
I did not like this depiction at all. The movie overplays the relationship between Xavier and Mystique, but drops the ball with Xavier and Magneto’s relationship. And Xavier should know full well how hard it can be to have powers because his power is one of the most dangerous and feared powers that any mutant can have. It doesn't make the movie unwatchably bad (the movie still works well on it’s own merits), but it really irritated me (as a comic fan) after the movie was over.
It didn’t really feel like X-Men any more.
I could go on with other comic anachronisms, such as:
- Mystique being a childhood friend of Xavier who he considers to be a “sister”.
- The original X-Men team not consisting of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Ice Man, Marvel Girl, and Jean Grey (I guess they weren’t really the “X-Men”, but rather a secret pre-X-Men CIA team).
- Xavier not being bald by the time he graduates high school.
- Sebastian Shaw being a Nazi, inventing a telepathy-blocking helmet, and the Hellfire Club being active in the 60’s.
- Moira McTaggart not being Scottish.
But those really weren’t big deals, and were all tolerable.
Hollywood, listen to me: if you’re going to make “origin” stories and reboots of movies and existing franchises, and then change every detail of those stories - including the personal relationships between characters, then you aren’t really making a movie of that franchise. Stop pretending you are!
All you have to do is look at Casino Royale for a formula for how to make a successful reboot/origin story. That movie takes the classic James Bond origin, modernizes it, and adds some darkness and edginess. But it kept the details close enough to the original story that it is instantly recognizable as “James Bond” rather than just generic spy drama.
X-Men: First Class reminds me of J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot. Star Trek isn’t a Star Trek movie. It’s just a generic space adventure movie with characters named after characters from the original Star Trek series. It’s still a good movie. But it isn’t Star Trek.
X-Men: First Class is not an X-Men movie. It is just a generic movie about super-powered humans fighting allegorical bigotry and prejudice from “normal” humans with characters who are named after characters from X-Men. It’s still good. But it isn’t X-Men.
Prequel or reboot?
So is Marvel trying to reboot the X-Men movie franchise? Or is this just a standard prequel?
To be hones, I’m not really sure. There is evidence going both ways.
Evidence for prequel:
The movie begins with a surprisingly accurate recreation of the opening scene from the first X-Men movie.
First Class includes cameos from other X-Men movie actors such as Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Mystique shape-shifting into her adult form depicted by Rebecca Romijn.
The movie references William Stryker as the son of a C.I.A. agent. This fits more into his portrayal in X2 rather than his comic depiction as a fundamentalist Evangelical preacher who hates mutants.
The costumes and visual style is mostly consistent (although brighter and more colorful) than in the previous X-Men films.
Posters and promotional material that show the new Xavier and Magneto actors with shadows or reflections of their X-Men movie counterparts.
Evidence for reboot:
Xavier and Mystique’s childhood friendship, and Xavier considering Mystique to be like his “sister”. Such a deep and intimate bond is never hinted at in any of the other X-Men films.
Sebastian Shaw uses a telepathy-blocking helmet that he created with help from Emma Frost. At the end of the movie, Magneto steals this helmet and uses it as his own to prevent Xavier from controlling his mind and preventing him from killing Shaw. However, in the first X-Men movie, Xavier doesn’t know about Magneto having a telepathy-blocking helmet, and postulates that Magneto was able to construct it by using the knowledge of Xavier’s powers that he gained when he helped Xavier construct Cerebro. Oh, Lehnsherr did not help Xavier construct Cerebro in the new movie – unless you considering rotating a giant satellite that may have been used by Cerebro to transmit as “helping to construct it”.
At the end of the movie, Magneto (in his kick-ass new retro, 60’s costume!) frees Emma Frost to replace Xavier as his telepathic associate for his newly-formed “Brotherhood of Mutants”. This appears to be a set-up for a sequel, but the events of such a sequel are not hinted at in any of the previous X-Men films. Emma Frost did not appear in any of the other X-Men films (except maybe for a short cameo in Wolverine).
In the end, I think this movie is intended to be a prequel, but I would not be surprised if Marvel chooses to make more sequel-prequels (that take place in between the first X-Men movie and First Class), and eventually works their way up to overwriting the original X-Men movies.
Oh, one last thing: At the end of the movie, Xavier tells Moira that the government won't be able to find him. But he doesn't go into hiding. He just goes back home to his giant, family-estate mansion in New York state where he will soon open "Xavier's school for gifted youngsters". So how exactly does he expect that the government won't be able to look up his address and find him?