Fox // 2011 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // September 12th, 2011
Before they were enemies, they were allies.
I am not a student of Matthew Vaughn's films, but what I can tell you is that by Twentieth Century Fox granting him the freedom to go his own way and paint a unique vision of the X-Men, we've been given a far more compelling piece of cinema than we ever would have received otherwise.
The year is 1962. Civil rights, the Cold War, and the rise of evil mutants. CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, 28 Weeks Later) enlists the help of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Wanted) and his adopted sister Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone) to sniff out a potential threat posed by billionaire playboy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, Super) and his Hellfire Club associates. Meanwhile, concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds) is traversing the globe hunting Nazis, particularly one Klaus Schmidt, the devious German doctor who forced the manifestation of his pubescent mutation. Little do they know their paths are destined to converge, when Schmidt and Shaw turn out to be one and the same; a man whose ultimate goal is inciting World War III and using the radiation fallout to create a mutant empire.
I'm well aware the following opinion differs greatly from those of Judges Clark Douglas and Alice Nelson who reviewed the film in its respective theatrical and DVD formats. That's the beauty of film criticism, we all bring a unique perspective to share.
If there is one family of comic book characters I am most familiar with, it's the X-Men. Having followed their printed exploits in various incarnations over the past 30 years, their translation to the big and small screen has been a mixed blessing. X-Men: The Animated Series was the first to truly capture the feel of the books for a television audience. Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2: X-Men United were valiant efforts for the summer box office. And despite Brett Ratner's ham-fisted X-Men: The Last Stand, the mass market appeal of these characters continued to flourish. One would think then that producer Lauren Shuler Donner would continue to make the most of her opportunities and ride the wave of popularity to even greater heights. Strangely enough, that hasn't been the case.
The most recent two X-Men big screen adventures -- X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class -- almost seem like happy accidents, as if Fox was squeezing whatever creative juices remained just to keep the franchise alive until a grander idea came along. The former thrived on the strength of Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber's performances as Wolverine and Sabertooth, while the latter became the undisputed dark horse surprise of the 2011 summer movie season, even though it bares little connection to what came before. So where did Shuler and writer/director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) go right?
"My main goal was to make as good a film that could stand on its own two feet regardless of all the other films. You know what Batman Begins did for all those Batman movies? We bloody well need it." -- Matthew Vaughn
Unlike the Star Wars faithful who have been burning George Lucas in effigy since the release of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, there have been no tremendous outcries from X-Men fans over these films. And if any one of them was to spark fanboy rage, X-Men: First Class would be it, as nothing here is canon. For all intents and purposes, these variations on well established characters exist in an alternate X-universe...and what a compelling world it is. Instead of using McAvoy and Fassbender to ape Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan, Vaughn gives them the freedom to find their own take on Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. It's no different than any production the Royal Shakespeare Company stages, so why shouldn't it work? And it does so beautifully. There's just enough inspiration drawn from the first two films to connect them -- in much the same way JJ Abrams' team went back to the origins of the Star Trek franchise -- while leaving a whole new sandbox to explore.
I won't go into the convoluted backstory of how X-Men: First Class came to be. Suffice to say, it's a soap opera unto itself, one which is outlined in this release's bonus features. The key point is the studio either had the genius foresight (highly unlikely) or sheer disregard in turning the languishing project over to writer/director Matthew Vaughn. Here's a man who's made a career out of small, character driven, British films. Hardly the person to helm a big budget summer tentpole. And yet it is for this very reason the film works so well. All of the standard trappings so prevalent in the works of box office golden boys Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay no longer apply. Instead, we have an indie creative family who wants nothing more than to recapture the best elements of Cubby Broccoli's early Bond films and overlay them onto the lives of the two most compelling characters in Bryan Singer's X-Men films, while rounding out the rest of the cast with cadre of comic book second stringers.
Instead of action set piece after action set piece, the story drives a true narrative. Each of these characters, regardless of screen time granted, undergoes some sort of transformation. Of course Xavier and Magneto are at the forefront, but Moira, Mystique, Beast, Havok, Banshee, and Darwin all get their moments. That's not to say there isn't plenty of action to be had. From the initial assault on Shaw's yacht and Erik's infiltration of the Russian general's compound, to Shaw's attack on CIA headquarters and the climatic showdown between humans and mutants, you'll find some truly pulse pounding sequences, many of which are done heavily in-camera under the supervision of visual effects grand master John Dykstra (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). What's more, the action is balanced by extremely touching moments (the relationship between Hank and Raven) and a wealth of '60s style and swagger (Charles and Erik tracking down mutants).
And setting it all against actual geo-political events of the time period, in this case The Cuban Missile Crisis, was genius. Imagine the possibilities of what can be achieved using the same convention (and the same creative team) going forward.
But while a well-developed script is the cornerstone of any good film, casting is just as important. Without McAvoy and Fassbender, you have no movie. Strong enough in their individual arcs, the chemistry between the two electrifies the screen and raises the game of everyone around them. Of that supporting crew, Jennifer Lawrence is the clear standout, easily outshining the work of Rebecca Romijn in the original films and making the character of Mystique her own. That's not to take anything away from the performances of Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Zoe Kravitz, Caleb Landry Jones, and Edi Gathegi. They all service their roles well. Only Rose Byrne as Moira leaves one wishing the character had more depth. As for the opposing team, Kevin Bacon is carving a new niche for himself as a cinematic badass. Between his work here as Sebastian Shaw and his role in James Gunn's Super, there will be many more scripts sure to come his way, in much the same way that British character actor Jason Flemyng (Azazel) has defined his own career. When you're good, it's obvious to everyone. Now I know January Jones (Mad Men) has taken a great deal of abuse for her performance as Emma Frost, and I'm not about to add my voice to the chorus. What I will say is that she was miscast. For as well as Vaughn's team did populating the rest of the film, they missed the mark here. That's all. It happens.
Matthew Vaughn is a storyteller. He's not an action guy or a story guy, but the rare holistic filmmaker welcomed into the big studio system and given the opportunity to do his thing. That's not to say, should a sixth X-Men picture be greenlit (and as of yet there is nothing on the horizon; even the Wolverine sequel is now in doubt), the powers-that-be at Fox will employ a similar approach. If anything, they'll find a way to make it even more difficult for Vaughn. But whether it be an X-Men film or something altogether different, you can bet it will be just as compelling. Now I have to go back and see Layer Cake and Kick-Ass.
Presented in a slightly reframed 2.35:1 1080p AVC-encode (down from it's original 2:39:1 theatrical presentation), the picture is breathtaking. From the detail of Sammy Sheldon's magnificent costumes to the rich vibrancy of Chris Seagers' Bondian production design, this Blu-ray is a visual feast. Do yourself a favor and let your eyes wander the edges of the frame, soaking in all the little things you missed the first time around. Try as you might to find the seams in the subtle CGI enhancements that layer the image, it'll prove to be a challenge. This is a big film with art house sensibilities, and those folks don't make glaring mistakes. While some have criticized composer Henry Jackman's Zimmer-esque score and its lack of standalone enjoyment, it hits all the right notes at all the right times. From 1940s Poland and 1960s Washington to Miami, Oxford, and Argentina, this is a picturesque soundscape that utilizes its full stage; the quiet moments are just a compelling as its bombastic counterparts. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio balances the action, the dialogue, and the ambience masterfully, and will surely give your home theater system a workout; so much so you won't have to worry about touching the remote after the film begins.
As for Blu-ray's bonus features, it's a respectably hefty package. Lacking a feature commentary, one can't argue with what has been included...
* X MARKS THE SPOT MODE -- Adds more than 20 min of behind-the-scenes featurettes throughout the film. This is not the picture-in-picture experience you've seen on other Blu-ray releases, but pauses the film to pull back the curtain before returning to the feature. Surprisingly, there are only a handful of these pullout moments, which means it's a very unobtrusive experience.
* EXTENDED/DELETED SCENES (14 min) -- Erik's arrival in Argentina, Col. Hendry's arrival on Shaw's yacht, Charles flirts with an uninterested Moira, Extended version of Angel's introduction, Extended version of Russian checkpoint, Extended version of Erik's assault on the Russian general's home, Extended version of Shaw's mutant utopia, Extended version(s) of Alex's training session(s), Extended version(s) of Banshee's training session(s), Extended version of Hank and Raven in the lab, Charles and Moira get it on.
* CHILDREN OF THE ATOM (70 min) -- Feature-length, multi-part documentary detailing the making of the film, from concept to completion. It's a long complicated tale of failed attempts, false starts, hurt feelings, creative musical chairs, major rewrites, budget constraints, and insane schedules.
* CEREBRO: MUTANT TRACKER -- Interactive catalog of characters spanning the entire X-Men film franchise. Simply use your remote to click on a character and the system will return a montage of movie moments, followed by a full text bio of the character.
* ISOLATED SCORE -- Henry Jackman's musical underscore in standard definition Dolby 5.1 Surround.
* BD-LIVE -- Exclusive "Dogfight" stunt sequence, which is referenced briefly in the documentary, but shown in full featurette here. Theatrical trailer. Live Lookup, which is nothing more than a streamlined version of IMDb.
* DIGITAL COPY
* COUPON FOR 10 FREE X-MEN DIGITAL COMICS -- Use the activation code at Marvel.com to access the downloads.
These aren't your comic book X-Men. The characterizations are wrong, the timelines don't match up, and you won't find this story in any back-issue longbox. And yet, history may prove X-Men: First Class to be the crown jewel in this cinematic franchise. Accident or no, Matthew Vaughn and his entire team deserve all the credit in the world for squeezing blood from a proverbial stone and using it to create a Jackson Pollock painting. This is art, people. Revel in it.
As Stan the Man would say, "Excelsior!"
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Interactive Mode
* Extended/Deleted Scenes
* Mutant Tracker
* Isolated Score
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review