I want to talk about X-Men: First Class. I don’t want to do a typical review. There are plenty of them available, by amateurs and professionals alike, if that’s what you’re looking for. I also don’t want to turn this into a gushing Fassbender fangurrrl post either…and I SOOO easily could.
Okay, I guess I’ll start there. Succinctly, Michael Fassbender OWNED this movie. There are, of course, two characters at the center of this film, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr. Everything and everyone orbits around them. They are tentative friends, uneasy allies, yin and yang, two sides of the same coin. McAvoy was good. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but I always see either James McAvoy or I see Mr. Tumnus* in every role he plays. Charles Xavier is also the less "showy" or flashy of the two. The manifestation of his mutation isn’t visible to the naked eye. He has merely to lay a finger alongside of his temple and concentrate, as if he were in deep thought. His character looks like a ‘professor’. All that is missing from his wardrobe are suede elbow patches. (Those probably come later. I have to say other than the fact that I’m aware of some of the characters portrayed in the earlier films, I don’t know much about them. Someone else will have to tell you how well this movie fits in with the canon.)
Fassbender’s Magneto on the other hand, is in a word, magnetic. If Charles Xavier looks like your eccentric uncle who taught you to play chess and gave you a chemistry set for Christmas, Erik Lehnsherr looks like your swinging single bachelor uncle that you know is probably up to no good, but is probably having a hell of a lot of fun. He speaks several languages with ease (including French, Castilian Spanish and the actor’s native German.) We know what Charles’ best pick up lines are. We doubt Erik needs them. (I could sing odes to the menswear of the early sixties, write sonnets extolling the virtues of well-tailored flat front, straight legged trousers or the joys of a good leather jacket. Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon-who also did the costumes for Kick-Ass and Stardust– is going on my Christmas card list for that three piece suit that matched the color of Fassbender’s eyes. She goes in my will for the pocket square**.)
The character’s backstory is heart wrenching and compelling and the actor takes full advantage of it. There is so much going on inside Erik at all times and Fassbender makes sure we know it. At one point, Charles says to Erik, "There is so much more to you than just your anger." And we know that. We see it. The scene in question comes at about the midpoint of the movie and in it, McAvoy comes the closet to matching Fassbender’s intensity. Both times I saw the film and the scene, I had an emotional reaction, but it is another moment that ultimately belongs only to Fassbender. When Charles pulls that memory out of Erik, Fassbender makes the viewer feel and experience it the same way that Erik does. When it’s a physical struggle to use his gift, he makes sure we know that too. It is clear from the first time that we see the adult Erik Lehnsherr that Fassbender has approached the role with the same zeal and passion with which he approaches every role he tackles.
Apparently, the decision to let us see Magneto shed tears in the above mentioned scene was the actor’s own. As he told Chris Lee of ‘The Daily Beast’, "Everything I put my name to and take part in, I want to be good. That’s not saying it will always happen. But I want to make bold choices. That scene was very important to me." Given what he went through to change his entire body for Hunger, I think we can believe him.
Much has been said about the style of this film and that it could be seen as not only an homage to, but an audition for the James Bond franchise. I think director Matthew Vaughn probably did have the Connery era Bond films in mind when creating the look and feel of …First Class, which frankly is only natural. The timing is apt in terms of when the film is set, which would naturally dictate the wardrobe and set decoration. There are even the requisite two "Bond girls" in January Jones’ Emma Frost*** (the bad girl) and Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggert (the good girl- without this premise, there can be no other explanation for Byrne running around in vintage lingerie.) Beyond that, the early Bond films were excellent examples of how to do this type of film right. They all appeared to take the subject matter seriously, including outlandish plots, sci-fi inspired gadgets and over-the-top villains, but did so with a twinkle in the eye. Vaughn has captured the spirit of those films while also imbuing this one with a great deal of heart and soul.
I love Daniel Craig’s Bond, but if he decided to step down, I wouldn’t mind seeing Michael Fassbender take the Astin Martin out for a spin. He could certainly bring the suave sophistication and charm needed for the role, and I don’t think his ability to handle the action sequences required should be in question either. (You have seen 300, right?)
I also like the idea of Vaughn someday being invited to take the reins of a Bond film. Matthew Vaughn’s previous three films all reside on my dvd shelves and JMHO, they are among the best of the last ten years. They are genre defying, as if Vaughn is resisting being put into any sort of niche and proving that there isn’t anything he can’t tackle. It’s tempting to say that X-Men: First Class resembles his last film, Kick-Ass, and that’s probably the film that got him this gig, but that would be missing the point. Kick-Ass is based on a comic book, as are the X-Men films. But Kick-Ass is tongue-in-cheek if not outright parody. In my opinion, the main thing they have in common is that the players and film makers translated their love of the material to the screen and that both films are a lot of fun to watch.
To digress but a little, I love that Matthew Vaughn has accrued a "company" of sorts. He’s made three films with screenwriter Jane Goldman, three with Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon, this is his second with composer Henry Jackman (and I must say I loved the score for this film) and all four of his films have featured actor Jason Flemyng. I had all but forgotten that Azazel was Flemyng until the credits because his makeup renders him unrecognizable. Bit of Vaughn trivia: Sebastian Shaw’s yacht shares the name "Caspertina" with Capt. Shakespeare’s boat in Stardust. The name is a hybrid of two of Vaughn’s children: Caspar and Clementine.
Brandon Gray at Box Office Mojo is claiming that the $21 million opening day take for X-Men: First Class was a sizable step down from X-Men Origins: Wolverine which made $34.4 million on its opening day. (Living in a large metropolitan and avidly movie-going city, I am sometimes misled by appearances. I saw the film on opening day in the middle of a Friday afternoon and the theater was full. I saw it again the following morning at 10am and the theater was full.) In any case, what is not taken into account by these numbers is that Wolverine had at best lukewarm reviews and the box office dropped off sharply after opening weekend. I predict that …First Class has legs.
It’s already received very high marks from critics and I suspect that word of mouth will keep it alive for many weeks to come. Next week, its only real competition will come from the Spielberg-esque, JJ Abrams film Super 8. If the internet and social media have distorted the appetite for …First Class, it has provided nearly all of the appetite for Super 8. If …First Class supposedly suffered from the lack of marquee names like Hugh Jackman, but still included McAvoy, Fassbender, Bacon et al, consider that Super 8 has NO big name stars. JJ Abrams’ name has a certain amount of cachet, as of course, does producer Spielberg’s, but trailers just started to appear on television about a week ago. I saw one in the theater with Thor, but none since. I just don’t see it as being a threat. JMHO. And while Kung Fu Panda 2 and Hangover 2 will still be around, they have already slipped considerably. I predict that X-Men: First Class will hang on to the number one spot next week.
In any case, based on this report and Gray’s supposition at the top of his piece, I have to concur with Edward Douglas of comingsoon.net who tweeted: "Based on this opening weekend, I predict that at least one X-Men cameo appears in the commercials next week." I’m trying desperately to only hint and not spoil. Work with me here people.
As I said, I’m unfamiliar with the other X-Men films. I can only take X-Men: First Class at face value. As an entertainment and as a showcase for the talents of its cast and crew, I have to declare it an unqualified success.
Side note: Ultimately I’m not sure it matters since the purists who care about this sort of thing have probably already dismissed Gavin Hood’s Wolverine film, but the timeline’s will probably make some fan boys heads explode. (I succumbed and finally watched X-Men Origins: Wolverine between starting and finishing this piece. It was a struggle.) At the end of Wolverine, a young Emma Frost is seen getting on a plane with an already bald, but still walking Charles Xavier and yet the adult Emma Frost in …First Class knows Charles as a young man with a full head of hair and becomes paraplegic while she’s incarcerated at CIA headquarters. Just sayin’.
*McAvoy’s breakout role from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
**Oh yes, a perfectly folded pocket square with just a half inch of deep purple silk above the edge. You’re welcome 😉
***A word about January Jones. She is one of the luckiest "actresses" on the planet, to have stumbled into not one but 2 roles that only require her to stand there and look good and all with the same expression on her face. The minute she opens her mouth all bets are off.