CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(The Scene: A strip club. A voluptuous stripper leads young 20-somethings, MICHAEL ARRUDA [with lots of wavy dark brown hair] and L.L. SOARES [also with a full head of hair and thin], to a private room.)
STRIPPER: You realize with two of you together I charge double.
MA: We’re not interested in that kind of thing tonight.
STRIPPER: You’re not?
LS: No, we’re interested in something else, sort of a “you show us yours, and we’ll show you ours” kind of thing. (Looks at screen) Do I really have to spout this silly dialogue?
MA: Only because it’s a reference to a scene in the movie we’re reviewing today. Now, shhhh, stay in character.
STRIPPER: “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine?” Isn’t that what I’m talking about?
MA: No. See, we know about your “special” ability. We know that this isn’t what you want to do with the rest of your life.
LS: You’re not alone. There are others like you, like us. So, can we see it?
STRIPPER: I’m so happy, I don’t know what to say. I’ve been waiting so long to show this to somebody. (pulls out a movie review and hands it over to MA and LS. They look it over)
MA: Thanks. This is very good. See, we’re putting together a team, a team of Cinema Knife Fighters. Armed to the teeth and ready to take on bad movies. We’d like you to join us. You don’t have to write alone anymore.
LS: Well, technically, you still have to write alone, you just get to be part of the Cinema Knife Fight family. It’s kind of like the Superman Family, except we don’t have Krypto the Superdog!
MA: Speaking of which, we have to get to work. (MA and LS morph into their present-day forms and find themselves now sitting inside a secret government bunker.) That was fun. I just love special effects.
LS: I preferred our previous location. What the hell are we doing here?
MA: We’re here to review the new movie, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and we’re here inside this bunker for two reasons. One, it’s one of the places where the young X-Men mutants congregate in the movie, and two, neither one of us would get very far with this review if we were still back at that strip club.
LS: Damn! I preferred that scene better!
MA: Well, let’s get this review started, and then after we’re done, you’re free to go back there if you want.
LS: Let’s get to it then!
MA: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS tells the story of how mutant leaders Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) first got together, and, of course, the edge to this story comes from the fact that we all know that they will eventually become Professor X and Magneto, Xavier’s future archenemy.
The story opens in 1944 Poland where we see a young Eric tormented by evil Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who shoots Eric’s mother dead in front of the boy’s eyes just to get the child to use his mutant powers. This scene is significant because it shows right off the bat the driving force behind Eric’s mistrust of humans.
LS: An opening scene that takes place during the Holocaust? That’s a bit intense for an otherwise action-packed superhero movie, isn’t it? But it’s handled well, considering.
MA: I liked it. The action then switches to 1962 where a young Charles Xavier has just graduated from college and is quickly recruited by a government agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) who wants to learn more about the next step in human evolution, mutants. MacTaggart wants to learn more because she’s seen mutants with her own eyes. Xavier agrees to help her.
Meanwhile, a now-adult Erik is hell-bent on tracking down and killing Sebastian Shaw, who’s now a major player in world events, as Shaw has used his mutant powers to keep himself young. Shaw also has the ability to absorb all sorts of energy and to expel it whenever and wherever he chooses, making him a powerful foe. Shaw’s plan is to trick the United States and the Soviet Union into annihilating each other, which would then leave the mutants to run the world. Hence, Shaw is the one pulling the strings which will lead to the real life Cuban Missile Crisis.
LS: I wonder about the logic of Shaw’s plan. Sure, they’d get rid of the humans if they triggered a nuclear war, but what really would be left for them to “run the world” with. Buildings would be rubble. Most of the earth’s population would be gone. Sounds like a pretty crappy scenario to me.
MA: I’m glad you mentioned this, because you’re dead on. It is a stupid plan, and it’s hardly original. We’ve seen this plot countless times before, especially in the old James Bond films, where the super villain tries to get the world powers to destroy each other. This didn’t bother me too much though, because the rest of the movie was so good.
LS: Funny you should mention Bond movies. I thought Shaw reminded me of a Bond villain in this one. Which isn’t an entirely bad thing.
MA: Xavier’s and MacTaggart’s investigation also leads them to Shaw, and it is here where they first meet Erik, who is trying to get his revenge. When Shaw eludes them, Xavier invites Erik to join his team. They recruit other mutants to join them and form a sort of mutant division of the CIA, though Erik is never really on the same page as Xavier, as he is led by his drive to find and kill Shaw.
They eventually track down Shaw, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile crisis, and it is here where the film’s climactic battle is fought. Since this is the beginning of the X-Men story, the conclusion is never in doubt, as we know what is going to happen between Xavier and Erik. Still, this movie makes for a mighty good show.
I liked X-MEN: FIRST CLASS a lot. In fact, it ranks as one of my favorite movies in the series. Why is this one so successful? Well, in short, It tells a good story, has two very enjoyable leads, a very good villain in Kevin Bacon, excellent special effects, a neat script and effective direction by director Matthew Vaughn.
I really enjoyed the two leads in this one. I thought both James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) were excellent. I thought they both brought the same amount of determination and professionalism to the roles as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen did in the original trilogy.
It was a lot of fun seeing a young Xavier, flirting with women, and just being a little less guarded then the older mature Professor X. Still, this young Xavier is no goofball. He’s a serious young man with the same positive view of the world shared by his older self. I thought McAvoy was completely on target with his performance, and he portrayed the young Xavier exactly the way I expected him to be.
LS: I dunno. I didn’t care much for McAvoy at first. His performance did grow on me as the movie went on, but I wasn’t blown away by his portrayal of Charles. I think they could have found a better-suited actor to play such a pivotal role.
MA: Michael Fassbender did an even a better job with his performance as Erik Lehnsherr. In fact, Erik was my favorite character in the movie. Fassbender was thoroughly convincing as a young Magneto. He really made me believe that he would not be satisfied until he had killed the villainous Sebastian Shaw. Yet, he doesn’t come off as a lunatic, but just a man driven by the need to avenge his mother’s death. It’s a great performance by Fassbender.
And he certainly doesn’t share the same problem Hayden Christian had in the STAR WARS prequels, who never seemed, as Anakin Skywalker, to be a convincing young Darth Vader. It was like two completely different people. Not so here. Fassbender makes Erik/Magneto his own in this movie. This comes as no surprise, since Fassbender was also good in JONAH HEX (2010) and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009).
LS: I agree completely about Fassbender. He’s the best thing in the movie. He’s intense, powerful and driven. You believe his character. Frankly, I thought he was much better cast than McAvoy – although the scenes that MacAvoy won me over with were the ones that dealt with the growing friendship between Prof. X and Magneto, as they got to know each other.
MA: I also really enjoyed Kevin Bacon as the villain Sebastian Shaw. This is one reason why I liked this X-MEN movie better than THOR, because this movie has a much better villain. Bacon has played villainous roles before and he’s always been good at it. He’s especially dark in this one, slick, cold-hearted, and deliciously evil.
LS: I’m not so sure I bought Kevin Bacon in this role at all. He starts out in the movie as an evil Nazi. Then when we see him in the swinging 60s, he’s this American playboy type without a trace of a German accent? That annoyed me. I didn’t buy the transition at all. But I did enjoy Bacon’s performance.
(A door opens, and AUSTIN POWERS springs into the room followed Mini-Me, girls in mini-skirts and hippies with guitars.)
POWERS: It’s groovy, baby! Oh, bee- have! I’m looking for some mutant mojo. You two look like mutants. Are you— mutants?
LS: No, we’re not frigging mutants! So scram!
(Mini-Me flips off LS, then runs to MA and starts humping his leg.)
MA: Hey, knock it off!
POWERS: Mini-me, stop humping the mutant’s leg!
MA: We’re not mutants!
LS: No, but we do eat babies!
(Mini-Me suddenly flees, following AUSTIN POWERS and his band through another door, exiting the bunker.)
LS: Where was I?
MA: Kevin Bacon.
LS: Oh yeah. Bacon really seemed to be having fun playing Sebastian Shaw, and it showed. Even though I had trouble believing the character, I still enjoyed the performance a lot, if that makes sense. I just felt like the Nazi version of Shaw and the 60s version were two different people entirely. But in the 60s scenes especially, Bacon is very good.
MA: The supporting cast is also very good. Rose Byrne, who we saw earlier this year as the mom in INSIDIOUS (2011), and who you saw last week in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), is convincing as agent Moira MacTaggart. The young mutants are also memorable, led by Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, January Jones as Emma Frost, and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast. I also enjoyed seeing Oliver Platt on hand in a small role as a government agent.
LS: Rose Byrne was fine as Moira, although they don’t give her an awful lot to do besides tag along with Charles for most of the movie. January Jones was cool as ice as Emma Frost, which is what the character calls for. How cool is it to have Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost in this one? They were members of the “inner circle” of the Hellfire Club (mentioned in passing here) – in the X-MEN comics. The original Hellfire Club storyline was one of the very best during the period when writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne were the creative force putting out X-MEN comics in the late 70s/early 80s. A real milestone in the medium.
But let’s look at Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique for a moment.
In the movie, we are led to believe that one night, Charles (as a child) comes across this mutant who can look like anyone she wants to, who has broken into his house looking for food, and suddenly they become best buds. They even go to Oxford University together years later and tell everyone they’re brother and sister. But this didn’t seem believable to me. Did he get his parents to adopt her way back when? Did he hide her in his room and sneak her food (the house sure was big enough for him to do this with no one noticing). It just didn’t ring true that Charles’s family would take her in so readily, especially when he suggests early on that they were rather cold people.
Raven looks like Jennifer Lawrence to us, when she’s not letting her guard down and showing her true self which is a blue alien-looking creature. But Charles has no problem accepting her for what she is. Needless to say, this makes them very close. Yet, in the future (the three X-MEN movies that we already saw), there doesn’t seem to be this strong emotional bond between the two characters. Even if she chose to turn “evil” later on (and she is a villain in the first three movies), wouldn’t there still be a powerful bond between her and Charles if they grew up together and he was the first person to accept her as she is?
For fans of the comics, we also get a mix of old and new characters in this new team, including Hank McCoy as the Beast (an original X-Man), Havok (who is Alex Summers, the brother of future X-Man Scott, who we better know as Cyclops) and some girl with dragonfly wings called Angel (comic fans know that Warren Worthington was the original Angel, and the dude had giant feathered wings, not frail-looking insect-like wings.) This “Angel” can also spit globs of what looks like napalm at her enemies! How the hell can she do that? Most of the other characters have powers that at least make sense on some level to make them believable. But being able to spit napalm? Come on! What is she, REPTILICUS (1961)?
MA: The film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, the same man who directed KICK-ASS (2010), and while I may have enjoyed KICK-ASS more due to its originality, this movie is just as entertaining. There are so many good scenes in this movie, and not just action scenes. Thankfully, this is not one of those movies that is one action scene after another. There is substance here.
Also, thankfully, this movie was NOT in 3D! And I have to say, in 2D, this film looks terrific! Everything about this movie looked good, and not once did I think, “Gee, too bad it’s not in 3D.” I’m glad they decided not to ruin this movie by forcing 3D down our throats.
LS: Yeah, at least it wasn’t in 3D!
MA: Back to director Vaughn. Some of the better scenes in this movie weren’t action scenes: the opening sequence with young Erik and the Nazis was very powerful; the recruiting montage where Xavier and Erik seek out their fellow mutants was excellent (and includes a very memorable cameo); and some of the early scenes where Erik is hunting down Sebastian Shaw are very effective.
And the action scenes are no slouch either. The attack on the government building when Shaw comes after the mutants is very well done and memorable, as was the climactic battle which takes place on the ocean waters during the Cuban missile crisis. The majority of scenes in this movie were handled exceedingly well.
Four writers wrote the screenplay, and I had my doubts about this, because to me it smelled of rewrites, but I gotta say, the script is terrific. It was written by Ashley Miller and Zach Stentz, who both wrote THOR (2011), and by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, the two folks who wrote KICK-ASS (2010).
LS: Yeah, Vaughn does a good job directing this one, and the script is decent. I have to admit, I wasn’t too excited about seeing this one, based on the trailer. It just didn’t look very exciting to me. But the movie itself was much better than I expected. I’m not too sure about the melding of superhero lore and history, however. Especially the whole “What if mutants caused the Cuban Missile Crisis” storyline. That seemed rather silly to me.
MA: The characterizations are all strong, the dialogue is clever and witty without being over-the-top silly, and the pacing is crisp, which is a good thing, because the movie clocks in at two hours and twelve minutes long, but it didn’t feel that way at all.
LS: I don’t know about that. For the most part it is well paced and works. But there was few parts in the middle where I felt time slow down a little. Nothing drastic, though. As far as all of the characterizations being strong – I’m not totally in agreement with that, either. I found several of the characters to just be really lame: from Angel to Banshee (where’s Sean’s Irish accent? And for that matter, where’s Moira McTaggert’s Scottish one? They were in the comics!) to Havok – another great character from the comics – who was reduced to a kind of generic, one-dimensional hot-headed delinquent.
And I’m a big fan of The Beast, but I thought Hank McCoy’s character was just too cliché in the “shy nerd” mode early on – I didn’t really like Nicholas Hoult’s performance much at all . Hank also presented me with another issue that irritated me about this movie. He has feet that look like hands, and this bothers him so much that he creates a serum to get rid of physical traits that don’t look “normal.” Yet he can hide his “affliction” very easily. By putting on some damn shoes!! He doesn’t have it half as bad as Mystique, whose true appearance would actually scare people. Yet Hank milks the angst about his feet for all its worth. And when he finally does turn into the furry blue version of the beast toward the end (a mutation of a mutation), he looks kinda lame. I’m guessing it’s a mix of make-up and CGI effects, and it just was a letdown for me. Although it was a lot of fun seeing the blue Beast in action in the climactic battle.
And don’t forget poor Darwin (Edi Gathegi). He’s the only African-American guy on the team, and not only is his power kind of lame in a fight (he can adapt to whatever is around him – such as growing gills underwater), but they kill him off early. What’s that about? Is this some kind of 80s slasher movie or something?
One cool character we forgot to mention was Azazel (Jason Flemyng) – one of Kevin Bacon’s henchmen. He looks like a devil and his power is he can teleport. He’s kind of a cross between Hellboy and Nightcrawler (which isn’t a stretch, since in the comics, he was supposedly Nightcrawler’s biological father), and I liked him a lot.
MA: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS also has a terrific movie score by Henry Jackman. It did remind me a little bit of the score for HANNA (2011) by the Chemical Brothers, but was different enough that I wasn’t thinking rip-off.
LS: For the most part I didn’t notice his score, except during the big fight at the end, and it occasionally annoyed me. So I wasn’t that impressed with it.
Some other things I did like about the film, though, were how the script explained lots of little things that happen later on. From how Magneto got his cool helmet, to how Charles got paralyzed, to the creation of mutant-finding computer Cerebro and the X-Men’s jet, the Blackbird.
MA: I think you’re nitpicking. I really enjoyed X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which surprised me because I really wasn’t expecting much from it. I have to put it up there as one of the most entertaining and satisfying movies of the year so far. I give it three and a half knives.
LS: I like it, but not as much as you. I give it three knives. It was good, but it didn’t blow me away. It was a big improvement over the third X-Men movie, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), but not as good as the first two, X-MEN (2000) and X2 (2003).
Oh, and I want to warn hardcore Marvel fans out there. We’ve been getting used to Marvel sneaking in a “secret scene” after the end credits of their movies. But there isn’t a scene like this at the end of X-MEN FIRST CLASS. So do not stay until the very end. You’ll just be wasting your time.
So why are we in this government bunker again?
MA: Because one of the key scenes in the movie took place here, when Shaw attacked the government complex to get to the mutants.
LS: Whatever. I preferred the strip club. I’m going back there.
MA: I’d go with you, but I’ve got a date with destiny.
(There is a knock at the door, and a voluptuous woman enters.)
WOMAN: Hi. I’m Destiny.
MA (to LS) Excuse me. (to audience) See you all next time at Cinema Knife Fight, everyone! (to woman) So, tell me again about that “special” power you have? You know, that thing you can do with your body.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – three and a half knives!
L.L. Soares gives X-MEN:FIRST CLASS – three knives!