After a disappointing sequel and a miserable prequel, the X-Men franchise returns to the big screen with a new cast, a new time period and a new look. From director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), X-Men: First Class is an edgy reboot that entertains but fails to live up to expectations set by its predecessors.
X-Men: First Class is set in 1962 amidst the Cold War and looks at how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) first met, formed the X-Men and became the mutants Professor X and Magneto. Opposing them is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a powerful mutant who is determined to destroy all of humanity.
The movie looks and feels significantly different than the other X-Men movies. It plays out more like an international espionage thriller than a superhero movie; Vaughn jumps between a dozen locations in fast clips, barely stopping to breathe as he attempts to develop his multitudes of characters while maintaining an entertaining storyline.
X-Men: First Class is entertaining, and thanks to its fast-paced nature never comes close to being boring. It has a few good action sequences and rests on the strong performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Kevin Bacon makes for a deliciously fun bad guy. It's also cool to see some new mutants, including Banshee, Azazel and Banshee.
The movie has a quasi-retro appearance to it, though Vaughn doesn't embrace the 60's fully; he could have done more to take advantage of the different decade, and other than the plot setting the characters don't behave like they're of a different generation. Frankly, though, Vaughn treats this big budget action thriller like Kick-Ass, and that's not good.
Kick-Ass is a wickedly entertaining and irreverent little film, but X-Men: First Class shouldn't be. It should be big, polished and powerful. Instead, the movie is rushed and raw, rough around the edges. With Kick-Ass, Vaughn could simply shrug these issues away, blaming them on the budget and story he's telling. With X-Men, the flaws are glaring. The special effects are adequate but plain, not representative of the reported $120 million or $160 million budget.
The bigger problem - and really the only problem that matters - is the screenplay. The movie attempts to do way too much in two hours; frankly, I was stunned to see so many story arcs completed in this film. By the end of the movie, Magneto has turned bad, Mystique (played by Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence) has aligned with Magneto, Professor X is paralyzed and the lines of war have been drawn.
Vaughn had the opportunity to make an epic trilogy, but instead tried to accomplish multiple and massive character arcs while simultaneously packing in tons of plot developments and action. Vaughn bites off more than he can chew, and it shows.
I rarely understood, let alone believed, many of the decisions the character make throughout the movie. Magneto and Professor X are supposed to be best friends, but they hardly spend enough time together to become such. Their relationship isn't convincing. The most convincing relationship is the one between Mystique and Professor X, yet when he is horribly injured she leaves him within minutes. A romantic relationship forms between Professor X and Moira (Rose Byrne), but they don't spend a single tender moment together until the very end; when Xavier makes his fateful decision, it isn't at all powerful or emotional. Other developments are strange as well, such as Angel's sudden change of allegiance.
Few if any of the characters are fleshed out to their potential, which is a real shame because Vaughn was in the perfect position to do so. Had he taken his time, had he been willing to delay some of these critical moments to later films, he could have made something great. Instead, he made something that is simply satisfactory.
X-Men: First Class is a good movie. It's entertaining and at times exciting. But given what it could have been, the movie falls far short of expectations and its potential.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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