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Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

After some less than stellar weeks, this is a pretty good week for films. We not only have an excellent but harrowing art film, we even get a genuinely good courtroom drama starring Matthew McConaughey! Best of all, though, is this week's big blockbuster, X-Men: First Class. Honestly, between this, Stardust and Kick Ass can we please get Matthew Vaughn to direct the new Superman. It's not too late is it?

Also posted at Artlink




When you consider just how many BIG superhero movies will be/ have been coming out over 2011 and 2012, it's not that hard to understand why X-Men: First Class has fallen somewhat between the cracks. Certainly in terms of fan expectations.

This year we have Marvel's Thor and Captain America as the build up to next year's Avengers reaches its climax, while DC offers its first film to be based on a major superhero that's not Superman or Batman with Green Lantern. Next year is even more exciting as we have reboots of Superman and Spider-man going head to head, which is nothing in comparison to the anticipation of seeing Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy come to a close and having Joss Whedon's Avengers finally hitting our screens.



Is it really any wonder then that X-Men: First Class has been allowed to slip between the cracks? It certainly isn't helped by the fact that it is following the mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the truly awful mess of the hack-job that was X-Men 3: The Last Stand. It's had something of a marketing push recently but nowhere near what its contemporary films have been receiving.

It is, in essence, the underdog. Underdogs, though, tend to have this habit of pleasantly surprising you and X-Men: First Class does exactly that and then some. Not only does it totally redeem the X-franchise after two total misfires and not only is it arguably the best X-Men movie to date, it's one of the best superhero movies we've seen, period. And, indeed, it's a pretty spectacular example of what great summer blockbusters should look like – making half-assed sequels like Pirates of The Caribbean 4 and The Hangover Part II appear all the more lazy and uninspired.

The reasons it works are multi-fold but having the same director and writers behind the brilliant Kick Ass is undoubtedly its biggest asset. Director Matthew Vaughn, who also co-wrote the film along with his Kick Ass collaborator, Jane Goldman and Thor's Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, has crafted a superhero film that boasts all the intricate world-building, spectacular thrills, witty one-liners and sharply observed character-drama that you could want in a superhero story. And he does all this while also exploring the themes of alienation and prejudice that lies at the heart of the X-Men more successfully than Even Bryan Singer (who came up with this film's story and stays on as producer) did in the first two films.

All you really need to know about the plot of the film going in is that it is set in the early 1960s and deals with the rise of the mutant race and the formation of the X-Men. It has a huge and rather impressive cast, goes on for 130 minutes and has more than its fair share of special effects but Vaughn keeps the film firmly grounded, sharply honed and solidly paced - all by building the film around its two central characters: Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Or, as they would later be known, Professor X and Magneto, respectively.

We have gotten a peak or two at the relationship between the two men and their shared history in past films but it is the driving force of X-Men: First Class. Xavier is perfectly portrayed by James McAvoy as a young man defined by his compassion, hope and optimism, whereas Michael Fassbender's Magento is a far more complex character whose childhood in a Nazi concentration camp ensures that no matter how noble his intentions, they would always be clouded by bitterness, rage and a great capacity for violence.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are a hard double act to follow but McAvoy and Fassbender are even better as two close friends whose who find themselves being pulled further and further apart to polar opposite ends of an ideological conflict. The film is especially good at developing the friendship and sense of camaraderie that the two men share for most of its running time so that when the inevitable split occurs, it is made all the more poignant and tragic.

We do, thanks to the films lengthy running time, get to know Xavier and Lehnsher very well and plenty of screen time is given to some of the film's many supporting characters (with characters played by Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hault and Jennifer Lawrence being particular standouts) but X-Men: First Class is no quiet character piece.

We have colourful mutants with even more colourful powers, shady government operatives, scenery-chewing bad guys (Mr Kevin Bacon take a bow for your most entertaining turn in years!) and when the film goes for some good old fashioned superhero spectacle, the results are genuinely spectacular. The film even makes brilliant, inventive use of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the nail-bitingly thrilling climax of the film. Vaughn simply understands that in order to make all of this massive summer-blockbustery goodness work, you need to actually give a damn about the characters. He understood that in Kick Ass and, boy, does he understand it here.

X-Men: First Class is simply a stellar addition to the growing pantheon of comic-book-based superhero films – one that gets pretty much everything right and damn-near nothing wrong. Don't let it slip you by.



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