X-Men: First Class [X1C] released yesterday at a New York premier. The bright cast, led by James McAvoy (Charles Xavier / Prof X) and Michael Fassbender (Erik Lenssher / Magneto), with support from Kevin Bacon (Kurt Schmidt / Sebastian Shaw), Rose Byrne (Moira McTaggart), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique) and January Jones (Emma Frost) helms the fifth installment and second prequel to the franchise started by the original X-Men [X], released eleven years ago. X and X2 (2003) director Bryan Singer produced and worked on story, while Matthew Vaughan directed and wrote screenplay.
The entire effort, in both creation and marketing, has been to portray this as a “smart” superhero film; from the intellectual (even awarded) cast, to the almost indie director Matthew Vaughan, to the New York instead of LA premier. I found the commitment and dedication to the fantasy very gratifying. There were no slips in logic, no tongue-in-cheek comedy, no Stan Lee cameo. Even the references to the wider X-Men universe were limited and, with a very necessary and obligatory exception, consisted exclusively of allusions. In spite of this, it still explains everything that was alluded to but never quite covered in the earlier movies.
Since the film is set in the 1960s, it is set in a time when the human populace was not aware of the existence of mutants, while at the same time being under the threat of atomic war. The film plays out closer to Munich (2005) than any other superhero film, even though it bears all the hallmarks of having an ensemble cast, namely recruitment, discovery, betrayal, inspiration, and final sprint.
The acting is superb. The main characters are extremely convincing, and extremely detailed. So much so, that it makes the lack of detail in supporting characters (Angel, Riptide) stand out starkly at times, which is the only fault I could find. Michael Fassbender ultimately steals the show: he is charming and troubled, intelligent and doubtful, powerful and weak at the same time. The relationship between Charles and Erik, which is undoubtedly the center of the whole movie, is preserved and portrayed with unflinching precision and sensitivity, and holds the viewer with the warmth of their hearts, not just the speed with which it beats.
The final comparison, of course, is with The Dark Knight (2008) [TDK], Christopher Nolan’s Batman masterpiece which is considered the de facto standard of a superior superhero movie, which not only set the tone and bar for grittiness and complexity in the genre but also got nominated for 8 Oscars and won 2. Since the makers of X1C confess the inspiration TDK delivers, it would be unfair to compare the two. However, as one does venture into this dangerously subjective territory as one must, I find X1C having more cinematic merit than TDK, which has more artistic merit. Heath Ledger’s acting and Christopher Nolan’s twists and turns make an amazingly entertaining and satisfying watch. However, they didn’t have to deal with the restraints of the X1C team (the pre-established story, the ensemble cast). In addition, X1C manages to be a lot more believable, which is quite astonishing given the fact that Batman doesn’t really have any superpowers while Magneto can lift Submarines with his mind. The lack of plot points such as TDK’s cellular-sonar network, and dialogue such as, “when you’re done, type in your name,” goes a long way in supporting the integrity of characters. Furthermore, the end scene in TDK is, much like the entire movie, a bit rushed, especially the “fake jokers and doctors” scene. X1C, on the other hand, is very calm, very well paced, and does everything it needs to while also taking moments to reflect on the philosophical aspects of xenophobia, identity, self and social acceptance, and of course, evolution. TDK loses out since Batman himself is eclipsed in the movie by almost everyone: the Joker, Two-Face, Gordon, Rachel, Alfred, even Moroni. The terrible, terrible voice acting by Christian Bale also doesn’t help. And I am convinced that the Batman costume (or indeed, any costume) can never be made to look good in live action. X1C, on the other hand, focuses very strongly on the main characters, and reduces the detail as it goes out. Of course, most of this comparison is forced and unwarranted. On their own, both are two great films, and it comes down to whether you like Batman or Magneto, DC or Marvel, the Creator or the Polisher. In my opinion, TDK was not Nolan’s best movie. X1C, however, is better than both Layer Cake (2004) and Kick-Ass (2010), and is Vaughan’s best work so far.
X1C was one of the three movies I looked forward to this year. The first was a miserable disappointment, and the last has a tight ceiling on its aesthetic potential. X1C was really the only truly satisfying film of the year, and I suppose to have one in a year is not bad. All I need is one good film to make a year worth remembering, and I will remember 2011 with X1C.
~ Terence Tuhinanshu