The film chronicles the friendship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr as they start up a school (and later a team) for humans with superhuman abilities. Their first mission deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War in 1962.
This is one film that could have easily been one of the top five best films of the year if it wanted to be. Much like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the story, subject material, and director were all more than capable of creating an Oscar contender. We all know that The Dark Knight was majorly screwed out of a number of Oscar nominations (most notably for Best Picture), and I could have seen this film being up for a few of those nominations myself. Unfortunately, both the script and choices by director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) make some bad choices along the way that ultimately keep this from being the masterpiece it could have been.
Let’s start off with what they got right. The casting of James McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, 300) is absolutely genius – both men turn in astounding performances. McAvoy gives Professor Xavier the charisma and soul he has lacked in previous portrayals, and Fassbender displays the brutality always hiding beneath Magneto’s helmet and gives him reason and purpose for what he does. Michael Fassbender delivers a fantastic performance here and hands-down owns the best scene in the film. The film is at its peak when it focuses on the relationship between X and Magneto, something I would have loved to see more of. Apart from the two central performances, the special effects were intelligently used, Kevin Bacon seems to be having a lot of fun, and the story is original (think a 60s spy film with mutants).
Now, I love director Matthew Vaughn, but I cannot help but thinking he hit his peak with his directorial debut Layer Cake in 2004. I enjoyed both Stardust and Kick-Ass, but no film of his since has hit every chord so correctly since Layer Cake (the film that ultimately landed Daniel Craig in the Bond suit). Vaughn has always had a knack for imprinting one scene in his movies into my brain that I cannot forget. Layer Cake had quite a few of them, Stardust had headless Mark Strong sword-fighting, Kick-Ass had Hit-Girl (enough said) but I will always remember the drug warehouse shootout with Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy. With X-Men: First Class, Vaughn has created arguably one of the finest scenes I’ve seen so far this year. The three-minute scene features Erik Lensherr towards the beginning of the film hunting down the Nazis who took his family away from him, leading to a brutal and effectively constructed showdown in a bar. This scene I wanted to watch again immediately after it was over. Scenes like this are what Vaughn does extremely well; he knows how to ratchet up the tension and then deliver a climax with perfect satisfaction all in one scene. This leads me to believe that he should stick more with gangster films like Layer Cake, where he was able to do that numerous times throughout one film. Overall, Vaughn does a fine job here, but never pushes the envelope enough to make the overall film too memorable.
My other problem with the film primarily has to do with casting/acting abilities. The younger X-men in the film, being led by Professor X and Magneto, become very annoying and lack the acting experience of their leaders. The only exception here is Nicholas Hoult as Beast, who stands out as a memorable character (until he actually turns into Beast…I am sorry, but that looked more like young Grinch than the Beast I remember). Jennifer Lawrence delivers a disappointing performance, especially after last year’s Winter’s Bone. The other mutants severely lack the acting chops to be in a film like this and end up ruining the characters they are portraying, most notably Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee. This is a mixture of bad character choice and bad actor. The character himself was already immature and annoying, combined with the actor playing him. The “fight” scene between Banshee and Angel is an action sequence I could have gone totally without. Between Caleb Landry Jones’ screaming and Angel’s fluttering, the film truly hit B-movie territory…and not in a good way. Luckily, this action scene was spliced with a far more interesting confrontation between Kevin Bacon and Michael Fassbender, something actually important to the story and the characters.
Overall, the film is very entertaining and hits its high points each time it showcases Fassbender and McAvoy. Had it not been for a few directorial snags and casting/story snafus, this would have easily been one of the year’s best films. More focus on Professor X and Magneto was something the film was outright begging for, being that they are the most interesting characters in the film, much less the series (along with Wolverine). I enjoyed the movie, but can’t help thinking that it could have been the next Dark Knight.
What to Watch For: Nice cameo by Hugh Jackman and an intense bar scene with Magneto.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.
Runtime: 132 minutes