Queued Up #2: X-Men: First Class (2011)

Queued Up blog posts are movie reviews of films that I watch through Netflix DVD Home Delivery or on Netflix Watch Instantly. X-Men: First Class is available through Netflix DVD Home Delivery.

****This post includes spoilers for X-Men: First Class (Including Images). I couldn’t adequately justify my response to this film without revealing story that may ruin some of the surprise. Major Spoilers in second half of the review**** 

X-Men: First Class. Dir. Matthew Vaughn.  20th Century Fox, 2011. 132 mins.

Matthew Vaughn’s attempt at the X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class, tells the back stories (origin stories in comic book speak) of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), aka Professor X, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), aka Magneto, and of the X-Men. Set during the height of the Cold War, and more specially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the X-Men must work together to stop a nuclear war. But, by coming out of hiding, they rick jeopardizing themselves to the prejudices of the outside world and a potential war against mutants.

X-Men: First Class (2011) Dir. Matthew Vaughn

The movie opens with the introduction of Erik Lensherr, aka Magneto, much in the same way that he is introduced in X-Men (2000). Erik and his mother are imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during the German occupation of Poland. When soldiers take away Erik’s mother, the metal-bending power of Eric is unleashed in nearly a shot for shot rehash of the first film. Erik is taken into an office and ordered to move a coin, by Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). When he cannot the camera hauntingly reveals that he is standing in an interrogation room, equipped for a number of gruesome torture techniques. They bring in his mother and ask him again to move the coin. He again cannot and his mother is shot, unleashing the wrath of soon-to-be Magneto.

Charles Xavier, a telepath, grows up in much different circumstances, at least that is what we see from the sight of his beautiful mansion. (You never see his family at all, so one can only assume so much.) One night he goes into the kitchen to find Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), aka Mystique, trying to steal food. Once he discovers that she is a mutant like him, he decides that Raven can live with his family.

Fast forward 18 years. Erik is hunting down Schmidt, who has changed his name to Sebastian Shaw. In Las Vegas Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a CIA agent, is tracking Shaw. She witnesses Shaw, along with Emma Frost (January Jones), a telepath who can turn herself into diamond-form, and Azazel (Jason Flemying), who can teleport, threaten, and teleport back to the Pentagon, a U.S. army official and force him to convince the US to station missiles in Turkey. Witnessing a mutant’s powers for the first time, MacTaggert seeks the advice of Xavier, who has since become a doctor of genetics, to convince the CIA that mutants do exist.

Xavier helps locate Shaw, and at the same time Lensherr has tracked him down ans attack Shaw on his boat, which also has a submarine on board. As Shaw is escaping, Lensherr tries to stop the submarine but is pulled underwater. Lensherr is only saved from drowning, because he is hell-bent on killing Shaw, by Xavier who dives in and convinces him to stop. And with that Magneto and Professor X become friends and allies.

With the help of the CIA-built Cerebro (Not exactly sure why they had it built already) Xavier is able to track down other mutants. Cue montage of Professor X and Magneto trotting the country recruiting the “first class” of X-Men. (Mystique, Dr. Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), aka Beast, Angel (Zoe Kraviz), who has wings, Banshee (Caleb Jones), who can scream at extremely high frequencies, Havok (Lucas Till), who has the ability to shoot energy blasts from his chest???, and Darwin (Edi Gathegi), who has the ability of reactive evolution.)The rest of the film builds to a confrontation between the Russians and the Americans, which is being fueled by Shaw, eventually culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis, on the brink of World War III.

Someone is a fan of Dr. Strangelove

WARNING – SPOILERS ahead for X-Men: First Class (Including Images)

Matthew Vaughn, director of Layer Cake (2004) and Kick-Ass (2010). and producer of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), is known largely for his action sequences. When comparing these movies to Vaughn’s expedition into superhero territory, “First Class” falls woefully short in the memorable action category. Xavier and Lensherr meet during the first action scene of the film, but this scene comes and goes quickly, with a lot of the focus on Xavier convincing Lensherr to let the submarine go. That scene is only slightly more riveting than the attack on the CIA-guarded, 60’s nostalgia X-Men base. During that scene the mutants largely watch as Shaw and his goons kill loads of humans who are meant to protect the helpless bystander mutants. (And it ends extremely poorly, too much of a spoiler to discuss) The third disappointing action scene comes when Xavier and Erik confront Emma Frost. The confrontation ends with little struggle and the scene is mostly another exercise of restraint for Lensherr. (Although the military official imagining to get it on with January Jones was a pretty good sight gag.) Only the final action scene is worth the fuss. That being said, it is the main reason to watch this film.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis action scene a few key moments happen which change the dynamic of the characters’ relationships. (Things that anyone who has seen the first X-Men movies know must happen.) The most important of these is the split of Professor X and Magneto. Ideologically the break is inevitable. The audience is bashed over the head throughout the film with how peace between humans and mutants and survival of the fittest cannot coexist. Vaughn masterfully shows when the break occurs through the way this scene is shot and edited. (While being a tad bit obvious.)

 As Lensherr is killing Shaw, by passing the Nazi coin through his head, Xavier watches by mind-jacking Shaw. In quick secession we see shots of the coin passing through, intercut with shots of Xavier reacting to Magneto’s revenge fueling him to kill. Xavier tried throughout the film to control Magneto and at this moment he has failed. Magneto has killed Shaw, but has also ended his partnership with Xavier.

When the threat of Shaw is gone the ships, both American and Russian, waiting off of the coast decide that they cannot afford to fight the mutants again. So in the first step of diplomacy they both launch missiles toward the mutants, and commence the first act of aggression towards the mutants. The fear and prejudice towards mutants that is widespread in the later films is not an issue because up until this time the mutants were not in the open. The revisionist Cuban Missile Crisis starts the battle between mutants and humans.

The Mutant/Human war begins

The beliefs of Xavier and Erik clash in the finale of this scene while Erik directs the launched missiles back towards the naval ships. Xavier physically fights Erik to break his concentration from the missiles, but when this does not work Moira unloads a clip from her handgun on Erik. He turns away from the missiles as the fall to the sea and he deflects the bullets, accidentally hitting Xavier in the back, paralyzing him.

And finally this action scene ends with Mystique deciding to leave Xavier and Beast’s, who she has grown to like during the movie because of their physical appearances, side and join Magneto. Xavier has not respected Mystique’s difficulties dealing with her mutation, and would rather her try and hide her true appearance, much in the same Beast wants her to take his antidote. Mystique as a character is ruthless and unrelenting in the later films and her character arc in this film was well done, culminating in her decision on the beach.

Fan Poster a la Cool Hand Luke

Many of the themes of this film, equality between mutant and human, xenophobia, and the acceptance of those that are different than yourself, are themes that are explored more heavily in the previous entries to the X-Men franchise. The inclusion of the Communist angle for that time period is just another comparison to be made for those thematic arguments.

The idea of a monster inside of one’s self is touched upon briefly, and maybe deserved more time. Xavier talks to Beast about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the fear of what one can become. Aside from this applying to Beast who is trying to hide the monster that he is, this applies to Erik and even Xavier himself. Xavier speaks about controlling your animal instinct, which like Darwin in the film, adapt and survive in you environment. If the human race is to evolve than the mutants are the next humans; Xavier hints at this while he reads his thesis. But, Xavier is fighting this urge by working for peace with the humans.  

Companion to previous

It seemed that Vaughn’s style clashed in parts during this movie. There were two instances that come to mind. In one scene Erik pulls a filling out a Russian’s mouth. The payoff shot comes from inside the guy’s mouth, something that you would see in Snatch or Layer Cake. (Image Below). And to go along these lines, the scene in the Argentine bar right after that is almost hyper violent in that same style.

The other stylistic option was the way the training montage was cut and edited. Mostly I am thinking of the bars that separate the screen and transition between shots. It is very jarring, especially when Vaughn had the opportunity to uses these transitions in the recruiting montage previously and decided not to. These two choices seem to be right out of the traditional Matthew Vaughn/Guy Ritchie movie. (Oh, and whats with the scenes where characters hop in and out of German and Russian into English. That didn’t make much sense.)

As far as performances go, McAvoy and Fassbender shine as the duel leads and Kevin Bacon plays a realistic villian, with little help in his character’s range. Jennifer Lawrence does a decent job filling in to the shoes of Mystique and aside from that most of the performances were serviceable. Many of the other characters were left under-developed or not developed at all. (Most of the X-Men, all of the CIA agents, and the villain side-kicks) The biggest travesty goes to January Jones, who received much flack for his acting in this movie, and rightfully so. She should stick to Betty Draper roles.

All in all X-Men: First Class is a decent addition to the X-Men franchise. It is surely a step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). While the story beats are not exciting enough to make up for the fact the the end result is already known, the performances of McAvoy and Fassbender make up for this. And while a handful of the characters are uninteresting and not handled well the final action scene worked well and was worth the watch. Die-hard fans of the original movies or comic books may find more flaws in the continuity issues raised by this film but I would say if you enjoy comic book or action movies X-Men: First Class will be a good watch.

6 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★

 We are the children of the atom. Radiation gave birth to mutants. What will kill the humans will only make us stronger.” – Sebastian Shaw


Other Observations:

♦  The Edith Piaf song, “La Vie en Rose”, is heard in the background of the scene where Erik Lensherr, as a child, is asked to move the coin. I feel like this song is used quite a bit in movies. Other than the obvious La Vie en Rose (2007) with Marion Cotillard, I can think of three other movies that use it off the top of my head. Wall•E (2008), Inception (2010), and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Natural Born Killers is godawful but I just watched it recently enough (for the first and last time) that I can remember the use “La Vie en Rose”.

♦  During the mutant recruiting montage an instrumental version of Gnarls Barkley’s song “Run” plays in the background. I thought it a strange choice.

♦  First Class decides to leave out the Logan “Wolverine” character (aside from a quick twenty second scene that obnoxiously references the previous films by getting Hugh Jackman in on the fun), who dominated the previous four X-Men movies. I found this rather refreshing. In the first three films (X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand) most of the other primary characters are glossed over with their back stories unexplained.  Adding to all this, Wolverine gets his own film to follow the original trilogy. This may have been decided by the source material (Which I am not very familiar with), but whether it was or it wasn’t not seeing Wolverine was not a disappointment. (Though The decision to even add the short scene with Jackman was a mistake)


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