By Brian Lafferty
June 5, 2011 (San Diego) – Most comic book movies that are the first in a franchise feel like a feature-length first act. I had this feeling with X-Men and Spider-Man. They’re good movies but they functioned more like set-ups for X2 and Spider-Man 2, which also delivered the goods better.
But not X-Men: First Class.
Set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis it explores the first X-Men. The centerpiece is Erik Lehnsherr’s quest for vengeance against Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw is a former Nazi who murdered Erik’s mother during the Holocaust because he couldn’t move a coin on command. The future Magneto’s vendetta eventually morphs into a showdown between the First Class and Shaw and his henchmen, who intend on creating World War III.
Unlike most comic book movies, this one isn’t predictable. Rich in story, First Class is driven by its characters rather than through action and special effects. The screenwriters (director Matthew Vaughn among them) weave the film’s numerous stories and characters in a complex but comprehensible fashion.
Another surprise is the tone. Although rated PG-13, the film neither dumbs itself down nor does it cater to teenagers and kids with an adolescent subtext. It is very mature and extremely dark. Despite the high body count and scenes of stabbing, blood is only shown once or twice, apparently to ensure the film wouldn’t get an R-rating (a film like this doesn’t need the blood, anyhow; it’d be out of place and the dark atmosphere is effective enough).
So even though the movie is PG-13, don’t take your eight year-old to see it.
It isn’t just the story that’s rich and detailed. Director Matthew Vaughn and cinematographer John Mathieson have an acute eye for color and its emotional effects. The colors have dark tones. The sylvan, woodsy, snowy colors and exteriors in Russia emit a “cold” feeling. The dark mahogany interiors of Sebastian Shaw’s office have a sinisterly quality that further reveals itself when Shaw kills Erik’s mother
Although Vaughn and Mathieson use different colors for different environments, it never comes off as color-coding. The lighting and cinematography in each scene gives a sense of the time, place, and the dark atmosphere of both.
The special effects, however, are hit and miss. The make-up is top-notch and the smaller special effects, such as Havok’s weaponry, are above average. The larger scale special effects, however, leave a lot to be desired. I won’t reveal the end but there are numerous effects that look way too CGI and fake. Even in a movie like X-Men: First Class and other comic book movies, these poorly executed effects can easily take one out of the moment.
Matthew Vaughn is a suitable choice for director. Like Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, and James Cameron he prefers visual storytelling. Stardust boasted gorgeous cinematography and outstanding visual effects. They didn’t overpower the story and characters. Instead, they helped tell the story. Kick-Ass relied less on special effects but it contained plenty of well-executed action and plenty of black humor.
Vaughn has only four movies to his credit (I wasn’t impressed much with Layer Cake, but that’s a minor quibble). Nevertheless, he is a director I’m beginning to respect more and more. In an age where many action movies are offensively mindless and brainless, he is willing to dare to make smart movies.
X-Men: First Class is now playing in local theaters.
A 20th Century Fox release. Director: Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer (story) based on characters by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Chris Claremont. Cinematographer: John Mathieson. Original music: Henry Jackman. Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon. 132 minutes. Rated PG-13.