Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’

will_leitch
The Projector
Eyes up here, people. 20th Century Fox
Eyes up here, people. 20th Century Fox

1. I'm not skilled enough of a Lexis/Nexus researcher -- wait, do people still use Lexis/Nexus? -- to figure this out myself, so you'll have to rely on my memory and your own, but I really don't remember much use of the word "reboot" in regard to movie franchises before 2005's "Batman Begins." A lot of people think the word "reboot" itself has become a cliche, but it seems to be a precise word for what it is: a chance to start over a successful franchise that had stalled, or began to repeat itself. A perfect reboot, like "Batman Begins," takes something we like ("Batman") that was broken ("Batman and Robin") and reminds use why we liked it ("Batman Begins") and, in the hands of the truly inspired, can even become transcendent ("The Dark Knight"). It's no wonder that it has become so prevalent: Mending a flawed franchise is far easier than creating a new one.

2. That said, I'm not sure you should get some sort of medal for figuring out a way to make your parent company more money. "X-Men: First Class" is a classic reboot, not only restarting the franchise but actually going back in time to show us the beginning of it all, a sort of "X-Men: Muppet Babies" sort of thing. This would seem more original if we hadn't just done this with "X-Men: Origins," but whatever: Giving Professor X hair and letting him walk, and turning Magneto into Michael Fassbender, that's a clever way to not only inject some life back into your brand, but also set it up for future installments. So good for director Matthew Vaughn, and good for Marvel. But also: So what?

3. The first hour of "X-Men: First Class" is breezy enough, which is merciful, considering I think I've seen the backstory of half of these characters at least twice on screen so far. Professor X and Magento, before they become rivals, band together to stop an evil mutant bent on (all together now) destroying humanity, in part by recruiting a ragtag band of teenage mutants who were out of place in the "normal" world. Again, this is something we've seen before, though I don't remember those young mutants being nearly as dull and generic as these are. (I don't know who's cloning Alex Pettyfer and putting him in every movie, but I kindly ask them to stop.) The movie clicks along briskly and has some fun action showpieces -- particularly one involving Magneto attempting to raise a submarine from underwater -- but there are no real showstoppers, and definitely no real underlying thematic elements that would help the film transcend its superhero origins. Say what you will about Bryan Singer's original films (and I'm a fan), but there, the mutant-as-outcast felt believeable and heartfelt. Here, it feels like ham-handed and unearned. You understood why the mutants in the first films felt persecuted; here, you don't get why they don't realize how cool they are. Because the film so plainly thinks they are.

4. It helps to have pleasant, compelling actors -- a strength of all the "X-Men" films -- and James McAvoy and Fassbender are charming anchors for the business surrounding them. I'll confess to still being a bit baffled for all the praise for Jennifer Lawrence's post-"Winter's Bone" work; she looks as out-of-place and slow on the uptake here as she did in "The Beaver." At least January Jones, who's even more wooden an actress, has some serious help in the costuming department. Fortunately, Kevin Bacon is wicked fun as the evil mastermind mutant, with a ridiculous '70s outfit and a sneering, self-mocking twinkle in his eye. Bacon is always at his best when he's playing someone unhinged, and it's a little baffling why he hasn't made a solid second career playing bad guys in action films. Give him 10 years, he might even make a good Dennis Hopper.

5. "X-Men: First Class" is a competently made, sporadically entertaining superhero action movie that will make a lot of money for Marvel and Fox, which is, of course, its primary directive. But it's not much more than that, so let's not get carried away here. Are we now really heaping praise on things just for being sleek and professionally made? "First Class" does what it needs to do, and very little else. It's a successful reboot. But, big whoop, you know?

Grade: B-