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Movie Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’

June 3, 2011

Remember back in the 1980s, when animators decided they had milked all of the charm out of iconic cartoon characters and subsequently created spinoffs of the cartoons depicting the characters as babies or children?  Remember “Muppet Babies,” “Flintstones Kids,” “Tom and Jerry Kids,” “Pink Panther and Son,” “Popeye and Son,” etc., etc., ad nauseum?  Creating these spinoffs was, of course, a desperate ploy by creators to bleed more life out of their cartoon franchise gravy trains.  In addition, making the characters the same age as the targeted demographic had the added bonus of widening the audience and bringing in more fans.  Unfortunately, this cynical strategy tended to water down the charm and appeal of the original series, but who cares if the short turn numbers brought in a wider audience, at least initially, and kept the series afloat for a little while longer?

Apparently employing this same strategy, Twentieth Century Fox decided that after their beloved X-Men franchise was almost destroyed by Brett Ratner, the director of X-Men: The Last Stand, and the putrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine, they would simply take the franchise, you know, younger.  Enter Matthew Vaughn, the director of last year’s Kick-Ass, who, along with producer Brian Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, has brought us X-Men: First Class.  The movie is second in the line of four superhero tentpole movies this summer, following Thor and preceding Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger.  Unlike those three movies, however, X-Men: First Class is the fifth in a franchise, although it is the first one chronologically.

That’s because the creators have moved the series to the early sixties, and thrown in a revisionist history of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis to boot.  The film initially introduces us to a pre-adolescent Erik Lensherr (“Magneto”) at a German Concentration camp in 1944, where it expands on the introduction to the first X-Men movie by showing what happens after Erik is separated by his mother and warps a metal gate by virtue of his mutant power to control metal.  His power is then exploited by Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (played with maniacal glee by Kevin Bacon) for unseen nefarious purposes.  Across the pond, Charles Xavier (“Professor X”) is shown taking in a young, homeless Raven (“Mystique”) at his ostentatious Westchester County, New York mansion, which will later become his school for mutants.

Fast forward to 1962, when an early adulthood Charles (played with charming exuberance by James McAvoy) is using his telepathic powers to hit on co-eds, while flanked by Raven (a misused Jennifer Lawrence), who is now his Girl Friday.  They are recruited by the CIA to help go after Sebastian Shaw, who is now attempting to incite the U.S. and Russia into Nuclear War, in order to destroy humankind and create a world safe for mutants (Shaw is subsequently revealed to be a mutant himself, with something about a power to absorb and employ energy).  Soon, Charles and Raven meet up with Erik (played with a convincing undercurrent of seething rage by Michael Fassbender), and the three join forces with additional mutants to go after Shaw, who has teamed with other, supposedly evil mutants.

McAvoy and Fassbender certainly attack their roles with enthusiasm.  McAvoy is all naive optimism and do-gooder horndog smarts as the  gentile Xavier, who believes that humans and mutants will ultimately co-exist harmoniously, all while singing kumbaya and solving the world’s problems.  Fassbender is conversely pessimistic, and his growing contempt for humans shadows the movie’s transition from trite sixties parable to grandiose allegory about humankind’s inability to understand people who are different.  Jennifer Lawrence, who was nineteen at the time of filming, is miscast as Raven.  Her giggly teenage awkwardness lacks a convincing segue into the increasingly cynical Mystique, who we are to believe has hardened into the villainess character from the other three X-Men movies.

X-Men: First Class ultimately falls victim to the continuity and short-sightedness problems exhibited in the Star Wars prequels (but surprisingly overcome in the Star Trek reboot).  Namely, that you cannot trot out iconic but overdone  movie characters, fill them out with beautiful, young actors and a convoluted plot to appeal to a wider audience, all the while trying to tie everything together with the predecessor trilogy.  Character motivations get corrupted (we are supposed to believe that seemingly good people become sociopaths at the drop of a dime?), personalities get diluted and the suspension of disbelief already required by the audience for superhero and science fiction movies gets exhausted.  The first two X-Men movies were thoroughly enjoyable.  The next two were atrocious.  This latest entry to the franchise just feels like a retread trying to recapture the magic of the first two.  I cannot wait to see the kiddie X-Men, showing Professor X, Magneto and Mystique as baby mutants, using their newfound superpowers to navigate the trials and tribulations of kindergarten and pre-adolescence.

2 1/2 stars out of 5.

X-Men: First Class is rated PG-13.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn.  Starring James McAvoy, Laurence Belcher, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, and James Remar.


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