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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why X-Men: First Class is the Best X-Men Film Yet

Why does it work? What's in store? Spoiler-free for your enjoyment!


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Bryan Singer's first two X-Men films were solid. They did a good job of wrangling a lot of different characters, their motivations and back-stories together. It took liberties with the details, but it made for a more realistic portrayal of superherodom. The third film? Well, erm, two out of three ain't bad. It lacked the finesse of the first two, instead falling back on forgettable action sequences and, honestly, it overdosed on superheroes and villains. It lacked storytelling grace. X-Men Origins: Wolverine? That never happened, okay? Move along.

X-Men: First Class is the best of the X-Men films, hands down. It draws on real-world conflicts to form the backbone of the threat in the story, which does wonders for context and a sense of realism. More than that though, it gets the balance of exposition and explosions just right.

After my first viewing, I felt X-Men: First Class was at first a familiar film – but an entirely different beast at heart from its predecessors. It is a mostly patient screenplay, taking its time with character development and feels balanced and compelling as a result.

That's the critical difference; as an origin story for Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto), the entire crux of the story has immense emotional weight. These are two men on opposite sides of the same coin – and Singer's story, while retreading some of Magneto's tormented childhood – does an amazing job of fleshing out his background.

For all their mutant bravado, these are human tales – very simple ones, too. Erik seeks revenge; one of the oldest motivators in drama. His tragic upbringing is given a lot of screen time, and that was the right decision. Not only does his early oppression at the hands of Nazi scientists provide a great comparison to the treatment of mutants by humans years later, but it also hints at somewhat rational motivations for his stance on the superiority of mutants.

Magneto's core story is about mutant segregation and superiority. That's the Nazi party line, in a manner. However, in Bryan Singer's first X-Men films, this is only hinted at. The parallels are drawn on thickly in First Class.

Superhero movies as a genre have advanced to the point where they can't afford to be hokey and lightweight.
Standing (well, sitting) opposed is Xavier; he is motivated to achieve peace through knowledge – and sharing that understanding with society. With First Class' Xavier, we see a totally different portrait to that of Patrick Stewart's poised and restrained interpretation. Here we see a swinging party guy; debonair and cheeky – and his charm carries the story beautifully.

There's still a team of mutants – some familiar, some new faces – to fill sequences with all kinds of eye-popping daring and effects work glory. But the balance is different. It's matured. It's better—and I think it's a sign of good things on the way.

In truth, I think superhero movies as a genre have advanced to the point where they can't afford to be hokey and lightweight. Audiences are too spoilt for quality now; they demand a lot more – and the original text deserves more too. Christopher Nolan's Batman rebirth pointed the way forward and it showed that audiences were as engaged by compelling story and artfully crafted filmmaking as spectacular stunts and dozens of characters on screen. In that way, there are two schools of approach today: the traditionalist and the modern.

The traditional approach apes the flow of a comic book arc and lifts dialogue and tone from the source. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men 3 and Ang Lee's Hulk all subscribe to this approach. They're bubblegum, colourful and aimed squarely at fans of the series above all others. And that's cool. It is. But it's not going to win any awards or turn heads that weren't already excited to begin with.

We're as relieved as you are that this turned out to be great.

That's why the 'modern approach', on the other hand, is so vital right now. It's about breaking preconceptions about superhero films; taking clichés and breaking them down. Nolan's Batman took a costumed character tale and turned it into edgy, almost noir crime drama. Iron Man played up the humour and sex appeal – and played the stunts for laughs, making it much more digestible for non-comic book reading viewers. At the same time, it rooted its conflicts and technology within the realm of the plausible. Watchmen uses alternate-history America and wartime violence to flesh out archetypal heroes – and in doing so, makes them human beings who are very flawed and definitely not super.

In X-Men: First Class, it puts superheroics at the secret core of the Cuban missile crisis. It also touches on race relations, equal rights and, tantalizingly, government conspiracies. The link back to Nazism adds further complexity – but it's tied so nicely to the core story that it creates real empathy with the quasi-villain.

What lies ahead for X-Men – specifically the 60s-era First Class? This is the opening chapter of Xavier and Magneto's loose friendship and tighter opposition. As the set-up for the main event, it was fantastic. Fans of the comics will appreciate the ending – and we'll not dare spoil that for you. But it almost doesn't matter what the overarching threat is in the inevitable sequel, because the action is still secondary to the drama between Xavier and Magneto.

This interplay, sitting above the action, is how it should be. If the sequel wants to retain the sense of quality, urgency and emotional impact, keep the drama high and central. Keep the set pieces, of course – I mean, this is an action movie above all. But never neglect that it's the characters (and the audience's feelings towards them) that drive the action. It's what keeps us coming back for more.
Movie Details

X-Men: First Class

  • Release Date:
  • US (wide): June 3, 2011
  • Produced By: Bryan Singer, Lauren Shuler Donner, Simon Kinberg
  • Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
  • Genre: Super-Hero
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Language: English
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X-Men: First Class