Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)
Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is so boring it kind of hurts. You want to like it, or I did, anyway. But there's no character development, sensitive historical subjects and events are made boring plot fodder and the usual climactic mutant fights aren't visually interesting or dynamic at all. I've only seen Kick-Ass of Vaughn's previous films, and I practically loved that compared to this.
The earnest James McAvoy (The Last Station, The Conspirator) plays Professor X, the role made famous in the first X-Men films by the great Patrick Stewart, and the brooding Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre ) plays Magneto, the previous Ian McKellen part. This movie is about their origins, and the origins of the X-Men as a quasi-governmental arm, and the Brotherhood of Mutants as an anti-X-Men arm, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
You didn't know that was really a mutant crisis, now did...zzzzz...z. President John Kennedy gets to give his famous speech warning against the U.S.S.R.'s stationing missiles in "Cuber." As for period flavor, that's what we get and all we get, along with some beehives. The screenwriters' understanding of history makes Sarah Palin's look like Ariel Durant's. Michael Fassbender has his least interesting alternate-historical beer with Nazis. What X-Men: First Class most reminds me of, for many various reasons, is Thomas Harris's only bad Hannibal Lecter novel, Hannibal Rising, which of course was made into a bad movie I can't even remember if I've ever seen. We know all about Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Could there possibly be an origin story dark, weird and rewarding enough to fit in with the rest of the story and still stand on its own? Answer: Maybe, but Hannibal Rising ain't it. Same for First Class.
The picture has lots of arguments about mutantism which press releases about the movie claim are metaphors for, or in some way about "civil rights," then the movie engages in the egregious, usually always offensive cliché of having the black guy kick first. Red did this too--to Morgan Freeman!--but had other redeeming qualities. The other mutant of color (besides the demon/devil guy and the blue ones) is a flying prostitute. You can't make this stuff up, people. I wish I were joking. "How'd you like a job where you get to keep your clothes on?" asks the "intuitive" Professor X, lounging with Magneto while declining her favors. Ugh.
The movie also shows a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp threatened with the death of his mother, who is standing between two guards. I won't say what happens next, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't square with the laws of physics, nor is it well explained by mutant interference with them. It's almost a continuity error, the camera is placed so poorly.
The movie has a lot of visual-logical problems. The effects surely look like they involved a lot of time, energy and money to create, and yet they are crutches, not visually impressive in themselves, nor, again, bearing much relation to how things move or look, even leaving room for the powers of many of the superbeings and some comic-book cartoonishness. Instead, they tie up boring plot points or substitute poorly for actual story excitement or interest. At one point, something has blood on it and it looks like digital blood. Boring digital blood.
It's difficult to blame the cast of fine actors, as we've all seen them all do better with better material. They're uniformly young folks who are exciting emerging talents, but here their characters are cardboard cutouts, their development wooden, their dialogue leaden. That's a lot of efficient packing material. We've seen this all done before, better. Caleb Landry Jones plays Banshee, and gets to break out of his usual typecasting as Guy Who Shows Up Near the End for a Significant Event (see No Country for Old Men, The Last Exorcism, The Social Network) by showing up near the middle and there are no significant events.
I went to see it again with an interested midnight crowd instead of a theater of critics, and they were bored, too. I left after 45 minutes because I was so bored, and also, importantly, because it was being shown way too dark on a digital projector configured for 3-D projection. It was easy to tell: there were two screens' worth of images being beamed out instead of one, and the white subtitles were a dingy grey. I explained this problem to the manager, and so should you if you spot it.
X-Men: First Class is not the worst superhero movie or aspiring summer blockbuster ever, nor certainly even the worst the X-Men franchise has had to offer. But I certainly can't recommend it, as I believe the average person interested in seeing it won't be interested much in the movie, or in ever seeing it again. Did I mention it's really dull and boring? The most fascinating existential question raised is why does Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone) have a receding hairline when she goes blue. I think this series could use a big rest, but I await the rest of the contemplated trilogy, presumably One Small Step for an X-Man and All the President's X-Men. Walk out of X-Men: First Class and get your money back if it's superdark because it's being projected wrong. Or watch Thor, it's really good and it's already supposed to be shown in 3-D, in which it looks awesome.
Credit where it's due: I worked in film projection in the past, but via the great Roger Ebert I read this Ty Burr article in the Boston Globe and learned how to spot incorrect digital projection, and you should, too, if you like movies.
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