Monday, August 29, 2011

Countdown: The X-Men movies

1. X-Men: First Class

And we have our winner.

You know, for a long time I had no intention of seeing X-Men: First Class. The third movie sucked and Wolverine was a fun movie that relied heavily on the title character. A character that would not be in First Class. I hadn't seen anything with James McAvoy. Having not started watching Mad Men, January Jones only existed to me as the girl from the third American Pie. Almost all of the male roles seemed to have been cast from a “Hannah Montana Boyfriend Catalogue” to the point where one of them was actually Hannah Montana's boyfriend in that movie. It was coming out the same summer as Captain America, a movie I was seeing opening weekend no matter what, and I cared so little about First Class that I didn't even both to watch a trailer.

Then a funny thing happened. Some years ago I signed up for the Rotten Tomatoes newsletter for whatever reason. For years, that thing went straight into my junk mail folder. The weekend X-Men: First Class came out, the newsletter happened to be sitting in my inbox. Without thinking, I read it and noticed that the new X-Men film was getting really good reviews. I said “what the hell, it's only 10 bucks, let's go see it.”

And I absolutely loved it. Walking out of the theatre, I wondered aloud if it might be even better than X2; having rewatched both now, I don't think it's even close. For a movie I had zero expectations for, I was blown away.

This movie belongs to McAvoy (Charles Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Erik, or Magneto to most) in the same way that The Dark Knight belonged to Heath Ledger. Both leads are just wonderful. The screen crackles with the energy they bring to their roles. McAvoy's Charles is a quick-talking idealist recruited by the CIA to help stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, who is also excellent) while Fassbender-as-Erik is a lethal, James Bond-esque killing machine driven by vengeance against Shaw. Charles and Erik cross paths while both are attacking Shaw, Charles with the CIA and Erik by himself. There aren't many surprises in the plot the rest of the way: the two find and train fellow mutants into the X-Men before separating over ideological differences. But while Wolverine abused plot twists, First Class succeeds without them with a simple rule: if McAvoy, Fassbender, Bacon or any combination of the three are in a scene, the scene is probably working.

That's not to say that this is a flawless picture. Shaw's fellow villains are woefully underdeveloped. Two of them are nothing but a depiction of a mutant power and the third, Jones-as-Emma Frost, is almost solely sex appeal and bitchiness (to be fair, Jones is pretty great at both of those things). The mutants recruited by Charles and Erik are almost all exceptionally lame. Darwin, whose power is “adapt to survive” (wait, that's an actual mutant power?) gets the old black-guy-dies-first slasher movie treatment. Angel is boring to begin with and annoying after she decides to be evil and attack her friends for no real discernible reason. Banshee, a character that is really cool in concept, is completely atrocious. He's by far the worst of the Hannah Montana Boyfriends, all shaggy hair and pouty lips and doing his damnedest to rip off Chris Pine's voice in Star Trek. Havok is pretty harmless and Beast has some great moments and then other moments where he's upside down grooving to 50s music.

There are more good characters than just Shaw, Charles and Erik, though. Wolverine shows up for a cameo, which was a really nice surprise. I really liked Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt as CIA agents, and Jennifer Lawrence's turn as Raven (Mystique) really grew on me during my third viewing. She's the emotional centre of the film, a character who just wants to belong and fit in but can't because of her mutation. Eventually she splits from Charles, her oldest friend, to go with Erik, who promises to never judge her. The decision feels completely natural and organic, even though it's foreshadowed by three movies with Mystique at Magneto's side.

X-Men: First Class is set against the real-life drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's an interesting backdrop, one that doesn't lend itself well to surprise endings but it's neat to see the way the mutants intersect with “history.” Both the Russians and Americans turn their aim towards the mutants, who hadn't yet been revealed to the world, as Erik implores his fellow mutants to join his side and fight the humans. In fact, the scene where Erik murders Shaw, finally getting his revenge, is the best scene in any X-Men film. Better than Cyclops fighting back tears in the White House after Jean's death in X2, better than Magneto playing chess in a park at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand alone after his best friend's death, better than the opening credits of X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Logan and Victor fighting in history's great wars. Erik telling Shaw “for what it's worth, I agree with every word you said” and then launching a Nazi-branded coin through Shaw's skull is absolutely chilling.

It all adds up to a movie that, while dropping in quality any time McAvoy, Fassbender or Bacon isn't on the screen, completely smokes all of the X-films that came before it. I think it holds up well against The Dark Knight as the best superhero movie ever made. Most impressively of all, it's singlehandedly made me excited for more X-Men movies. X-Men: First Class is just a great, great film.

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