X-Men: First Class
by Jef Burnham
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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In 2006, the X-Men trilogy came to a close. Cyclops was dead, I guess, and Professor X had been disintegrated, and we were all left feeling very disappointed. But you can’t keep a money-making franchise down, and so we got X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, which did everything it could to drive that cash cow into the ground. So when yet another prequel was announced, I was less than thrilled— one might say disgusted, even. To my surprise, however, I find that I’m an enormous fan of X-Men: First Class, despite being every bit as unfaithful to the comics as its predecessors.
This installment takes us back to the Cuban Missile Crisis during which time Prof. X and Magneto set about putting together a team of young mutants to prevent Sebastian Shaw from instigating World War III. (Note: for simplicity’s sake I will refer to the mutants herein by their code names, despite their being referred to in the film for the most part by their real names.) The filmmakers actually do some interesting things with the characters here, including sending the young Magneto on a revenge quest to destroy the Nazi who murdered his mother. And the casting here is every bit as fantastic as it had been in the previous films. First Class most notably stars, in addition to an incredibly talented host of up-and-coming talents as the young X-Men, James McAvoy as Prof. X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. What’s more, among the supporting players you’ll find Jason Flemyng, January Jones, James Remar, Ray Wise, Oliver Platt, Michael Ironside, and of course, Hugh Jackman.
Now, it’s by no means a perfect film and it’s hardly a faithful adaptation of the X-Men comics. Characters who gave the comics an international flavor such as Banshee and Moira MacTaggert are here cast as Americans; and the appearance of many of these characters in the 1960’s shows the extent to which the writers ignored the continuity of the comics in favor of the continuity of the films. But we have to expect filmmakers to appropriate characters for their own purposes when dealing with such a sprawling, group narrative as X-Men, lest they adapt a single story arc (which then offers its own set of problems). In light of this, and ignoring everything I know about X-Men continuity, I found the particular ways in which these characters were appropriated for First Class to make for an incredibly enjoyable film, which is more than I can say for the first and last installments of the original trilogy. I truly found myself wishing after First Class’s conclusion that this had been the beginning of the franchise instead of an after-thought.
That being said, there were two elements in the picture that significantly limited my enjoyment of it, and I feel compelled to detail here. The first of these elements seems minor, but is rooted in such an obvious contrivance that I found it rather insulting as a viewer. It occurs during an exchange between Mystique and Beast in which they discuss a serum Beast is preparing to cure his physical mutations. He says something to the effect that “You have no idea what I’d give to feel…” and they both say, “…normal.” Here they chuckle, indicating that they had not expected the other to say that and they share a moment that marks the beginning of their romance. This is a common tool in cinema, one that can indeed work to create such a bond between characters in the minds of the audience, but only if the shared moment is something truly unique. In this instance, however, every person in the audience knows what Beast is going to say, and we know that Mystique knows what Beast is going to say, because, in addition to the line being incredibly cliché, it’s just so painfully obvious. I mean, what else could he be saying in reference to a serum that will normalize his appearance? That the characters are surprised when they both blurt out “normal” only makes them look stupid to us, which was hardly the point of the scene. What makes matters worse is that this moment is referenced later by Mystique as one that defines their bond.
The second enjoyment-tarnishing element requires far less explanation. During the fledgling X-Men’s training montage, the presentation becomes hyper-stylized, utilizing a split-screen aesthetic that simply clashes aesthetically with the rest of the film. Moreover, the technique doesn’t hurry along the proceedings any, and it doesn’t really make it seem to play out any quicker either, especially since most uses of the technique throughout do little more than stand in for shot-reverse-shots and cutaways. So what would otherwise be incredibly short shots end up lingering in a corner of the screen for way too long. In short, it’s inconsistent with the rest of the film and serves no purpose.
Even still, X-Men: First Class is, in my estimation, the best entry in the series. And it looks and sounds fantastic on the Blu-ray release, presented in stunning HD with dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The Blu-ray release also includes a digital copy of the film and a wealth of special features not included on the DVD release. Included here are “Children of the Atom,” a multi-part making-of featurette; “Cerebro: Mutant Tracker,” an interactive mutant database; “X Marks the Spot” viewing mode, in which things pop up throughout the movie and generally ruin the experience of viewing a film; the isolated score; deleted and extended scenes; and other BD Live-exclusive extras.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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