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Zach Manges
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First-rate addition to spotty series
Strong characters are one of the highlights of film.
Strong characters are one of the highlights of film.
August 2, 2011

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Release date: 2011
Length: 132 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The X-men film series has had a spotty record during its 11-year history.  I found the first movie to be somewhat boring, although things picked up with the stellar second flick.  However, it quickly went downhill again with the passable third and the abominable fourth.  Now, with a fresh cast and a fresh time period, this prequel to the entire series is ready for a shot at being the best X-men movie yet. It doesn’t quite achieve that, but it comes darn close, because this is an all-around great film, superhero or otherwise.

The story begins during the Holocaust and shows the origin of Magneto, the series’ primary antagonist who possesses vast magnetic superpowers. His mother is slaughtered before him by a cruel Nazi scientist, which causes him to discover his abilities too late, unleashing an angry god of a man on the world.  Time shift to the early 1960s. The United States is on the brink of war with Russia. Charles Xavier, a telepathic mutant man, realizes that without some extra help, the two nations will destroy one another. Enlisting the help of the adult Magneto, he sets out to locate the mutants and form a special team to avert a possible judgment day. Meanwhile, an extraordinarily powerful mutant plans to take over the world.

The setting is achieved with faithful costumes to the time periods and a unique lighting style that gives objects a clean, dry sheen. Occasionally, you’ll notice a catchphrase or wording that seems a couple decades out of place for the 1960s, but for the most part, your doubt will be put to rest for the length of the film’s run time.

Despite the seemingly suspenseful premise, the tension sometimes falls flat, especially during the somewhat clunky closing scene of the climax. One particularly awful scene involves the characters sitting in a circle, introducing themselves with the lines: “My power is X, and my superhero name is Y!”  It’s an insultingly simplified method to dispense with origin stories and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  This is an isolated incident, however. Overall, the film is paced well and even manages to pull off an effective training montage where the young, inexperienced mutants become the heroic team of X-men.

The acting among the principal players is some of the best I’ve seen in a superhero flick.  The “bromance” between James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto, respectively, is very convincing and adds a great dramatic layer to the proceedings.  Kevin Bacon as the villainous Sebastian Shaw channels Ian McKellan as a terrifying character, which makes sense, as he helps push Magneto toward a path of darkness. A five-second cameo from Hugh Jackman as Wolverine provides a genuine laugh.

Most of the other characters are average though none, except for the mind-numbingly bland Lucas Till as Havok, are distracting or inept. The friendships that develop between the team of unique individuals are palpable in their short time together, and since this is an X-men movie, believable teamwork is important.

As far as action, the visual and practical effect treats come in slightly shorter supply than past entries, but it’s forgivable because of the interesting character work going on.  Wisely, the story scales back the often over-the-top insanity and flurried visual effects of the average superhero movie in favor of simplistic explorations of X-men capabilities, which also lends itself well to developing the characters further. However, the climactic final battle does provide a fix for action-hungry viewers. 

In summary, X-men: First Class succeeds at returning to the roots of the first two films, combining great character work with just enough gorgeous action to keep things interesting.  It’s not flawless, but the strides forward for the series greatly overshadow the tiny issues. It took eight years, but we finally have a worthy follow-up to the excellent X-men 2.  Maybe this time, they can keep the streak going.  I’d give this an 8 out of 10.

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