Marvel Movie Madness! Part 13: X-Men: First Class

Does this preboot do the trick?

by | June 6, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 13: X-Men: First Class (2011, 87% @ 190 reviews)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne

Matt: After a disappointing descent into mediocrity (X-Men: The Last Stand, and Wolverine), Marvel’s mutant heroes make a triumphant return to the big screen with a prequel that tells the story of how the band got together back in the day. Now, if you’re like me and grew up reading The Uncanny X-Men, you won’t like the liberties taken here with which mutants were actually in this “First Class.” But I’m willing to let that pass because this movie is mostly pretty fun. The action is thrilling, the cast is (mostly) great, and the story works pretty well. I wouldn’t have thought the X-Men were involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that story works really well here, and lends credence to humanity’s fear of the mutant population. In spite of a couple of problems I had here and there, I really enjoyed this movie (even if the comic geek in me was somewhat disappointed with some of the character choices).

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Luke: Well, at least it sets things on some sort of promising path again after the debacle of Wolverine, but I can’t say I thought this movie was successful. As Matt says, there are continuity issues, which I wouldn’t normally have a problem with if First Class had set itself up as a pure reboot of the series — but there are numerous nods to the trilogy, and Wolverine (it’s a giant nod), and the fact that it does this and yet gets a couple of things majorly wrong (I can’t go into it without spoilers) was an issue for me. I mean, there’s plenty of good stuff here: Michael Fassbender is fantastic (as he always is), and I liked the retro-Bondian establishing first half, which also had a lot of humor to it (could Matthew Vaughn direct a reboot of the 1960s Batman? Absolutely; that may just be his calling.) The whole plot being hitched to the Cuban missile crisis, though, deflated the tension a little too much; we know how that turned out, which isn’t necessarily fatal to the movie, but the plot builds so heavily upon it that we’re invited to sit in suspense for an outcome that is forgone. Also, the way some of the characters are introduced, and their names checked off facetiously — “Hey, you should be called Magneto! That’s a cool name!”, whatever — brought back certain bad prequel memories, and there’s one shot (without spoiling: huge pull back from the beach, melodramatic wailing) that had me falling out of my seat laughing, and not in any way the movie had intended. And if you’re going to set a movie in the 1960s, what’s with the cheap-sounding modern action movie score?

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Ryan: I was particularly excited to see how this prequel would be done, how it would set up some of the characters we see later in the X-Men movies of the 2000s. Overall, like Matt, I found it pretty entertaining, but I think I also know somewhat where Luke’s coming from.

Early on, for example, I was a little worried, because there are a couple of instances in the first twenty minutes or so when I had to stifle a few chuckles (Revenge of the Sith-sized chuckles), but the movie quickly rights itself and begins focusing on the characters of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. That’s where the real meat of the story is, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender do a terrific job. For what it’s worth, the snappy action, the obligatory montage of young mutants learning to harness their powers, and the little winks to the fans kept the movie fun and (mostly) prevented it from devolving into an unintentionally hilarious melodrama.

Why “mostly”? Because as well-crafted as the story is, it’s inevitably going to be a little tricky to imbue a movie like this with substantial heft, and there were little moments here and there that, at least for me, quite honestly teetered on camp – it didn’t help that my theater had a guy with a ridiculous guffaw who laughed during all of those moments. Where I differ from Luke, though, is that every time this happened, I thought the movie recovered and brought things back to center, so I didn’t sweat it too much, and I was left with a pretty enjoyable moviegoing experience.

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Jeff: After reading so many four- and five-star reviews for this movie, I had really high expectations going in, but I came away disappointed. X-Men: First Class has a lot going for it — as everyone else has noted, Fassbender is outstanding, and Vaughn’s way with an action sequence gives the film a palpable, albeit inconsistent, sense of kinetic joy — but they aren’t enough to sustain momentum.

Part of the problem is that First Class is an origin story that involves a lot of characters, so it has to build a lot of context, but it’s hard to do that without slowing things down, so the script tries to have it both ways; you get a bunch of action interspersed with a lot of really clunky expository dialogue (not to mention some distractingly obvious lines referencing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” and the tension between liberty and security). It shines a harsh light on the cast, some of whom go overboard (Kevin Bacon really needed a mustache to twirl) and some of whom just seem lost (January Jones: Oof).

It isn’t all bad. Really, parts of First Class are a lot of fun. But it’s built on such a promising idea, and it assembled so much talent, that I was expecting to be strapped in and taken for a thrill ride, and instead I kept being taken out of the movie. That’s a fatal flaw for this type of film — you never want to give the viewer time to ask questions like “Why are Xavier and Magneto alone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?” or “Why does that nuclear reactor look like a carnival attraction?”


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