Sheesh... I'm up to part 4 already. I guess I'm committed to this for the long haul, now.
I went and saw X-Men: First Class at a late Friday night showing. Usually, I'll wait a week or so to go see a film to avoid lines or crowds, but well... I was bored. So I decided to go see it.
The first two X-Men films were okay, but I never felt that they got all of the characters quite right. (Anna Paquin?? Gimme a break.) It felt like they took random bits and pieces of characters and stories, and tossed it all together without knowing really what to do with it all. And the third movie... well, the less said about that epic mess the better. It's almost like they went out of their way to kill off the franchise. And the Wolverine movie was instantly forgettable, which is probably the best thing that can be said about it.
Given all of that, I didn't have great expectations about X-Men: First Class. The commercials really didn't tell me much about the film or characters that gave me any reason to want to go see it. But again, I was bored. Plus, I had a blog entry to fill.
So to say that I was pleasantly surprised with X-Men: First Class is an understatement. It was a really good film. It goes back to the beginnings of the X-Men, and how Charles Xavier, Erik Lensherr (Magneto) and others first got together. Now, if that's all it did, then it probably wouldn't be much of a movie, and frankly, that's all I was expecting. But First Class goes further back than that, and shows why these characters turn out the way they do. It adds depth to them, to their relationships, and makes Magneto into a sympathetic, tragic character. The contrast between the boyhoods that Xavier and Magneto went through is startling. And while it's probably been gone over in comics before, it's really presented well here, in a way that actually made me resent Xavier and his naive, privileged upbringing, when so much tragedy was happening elsewhere. Yeah... pretty powerful stuff for a comic book movie.
Consequently, as their worlds were shaped by their upbringings, so was their view of it. As they finally meet up later in life, they couldn't be more different. Yet, they still manage to bond in what really comes across as a genuine friendship, and almost a brotherhood of sorts. Their relationship, goals, and view of the world is what is at the core of this film.
What's really interesting, is seeing Xavier as a 20-something college kid. He's not the serious, stuffy, elder statesman we're used to. He's young, humorous, and adventurous, but still with the qualities that will come to the forefront later in his life. On the other hand, Magneto is, in every regard, his polar opposite (pun not intended) - serious and scarred irrevocably by life. Yet they find a common ground in their desire to protect and forward the cause of mutant-kind. And if anything, Magneto is even more serious about it than Xavier is.
Most of the other X-Men are more perfunctory than critical to the story. There has to be some first generation X-Men, and in the other movies they've already established that four of the original comic book X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl/Jean Grey, Ice-Man and Angel) wouldn't even have been born yet, so they make do with Beast, Banshee, Havoc, Mystique, and a couple of others I've already forgotten the names of. The backstory with most of the characters probably has nothing to do with their comic book origins, so don't even bother trying to work that out, but from the standpoint of the movie, the relationships that are formed are sufficient to the story at hand and in a couple of cases, important.
Besides Xavier and Magneto, the other exceptional character in the film is Sebastien Shaw played by (surprise!) Kevin Bacon. Now, the fact that I was surprised by how good he was isn't a knock against Kevin Bacon (after all, he's in one of my all-time favorite guilty-pleasures - Tremors), it's just that I'd never seen him play a villain like this before, and this guy is completely evil. Yet, he's not over-the-top evil, he's calm, in control, and very methodical and matter-of-fact about the whole thing. That's much more unsettling than someone who wrings his hands and cackles maniacally.
The story takes place in 1962, and does a surprisingly good job of weaving it into current events of the time. I wasn't really expecting that to work, but it did, and they managed to mostly pull off the look of the early 60's convincingly enough. That said, some of the technology (and hairstyles) looked to be too new for the era, and even if it was accurate to the time, maybe playing it safe with pushing the look a little older would have helped sell the time period a little better.
There are some strong character moments during the film, and even though we know where characters are going to end up for the most part, the film does a good job of maintaining suspense as to when (or even if) things are going to happen during this particular story. There was even one moment near the end of the film that took me completely by surprise, although in hindsight I can see that it had to happen sooner or later, but I wasn't quite prepared for when or how it happened. There are a couple of cool cameos in the film, although I was actually a little disappointed by them, since they more firmly tie this film into the other X-Men films, and I was hoping this might be used as an opportunity to just start over. Consequently, I'm not sure where they're going after this movie. The 70's? I suppose it might be interesting to see a series of period superhero films, but I think it would be more interesting if it were Superman or Batman in the 40's.
The action sequences were well done, and the special effects were mostly very good. There were some places where the CGI didn't quite work, and Beast's makeup just never looked quite right, but those are minor quibbles. There wasn't anything in there I'd call a deal-breaker.
Overall, I found myself really liking the movie. It still makes some missteps, and plays a little fast and loose with the X-Men canon, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. The important thing is that the film really made me like and empathize with the main characters, and care about what they were doing. Superheroes or not, that's always a point in any movie's favor.
X-Men: First Class gets a surprising 8/10.