Critical Mass: 'X-Men: First Class' graduates with most critics' honors
Though a few comic-book heroes are getting their first major filmic at-bats this summer (Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern), the X-Men have been around for a few years. Their latest, "X-Men: First Class," has a lot about it to cause concern. For one thing, it's a fourquel. Not only that, it's a prequel. It lacks the star power of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Hugh Jackman. And the previous installment, "X-Men: The Last Stand," didn't really excite anyone except for director Brett Ratner's accountant. Yet, surprisingly, against the odds, director Matthew Vaughn seems to have made a superhero epic worth watching.
That's not to say that all the critics are on board with the film. The Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey sees the greatness that could have been present in this latest blockbuster but feels that it's undone by the flaws. She writes, "Those flashes of amazing are fleeting, ultimately undone by a frustrating mire of multiple plots, overreaching special effects, leaden ancillary players and world-ending military standoffs that have all the tension of a water balloon fight."
Though this X-Men team may lack the marquee names of its predecessors, it seems Vaughn has smartly stocked his film with capable actors, and according to Reason Online critic Kurt Loder, that makes a huge difference. "The movie is elevated by the quality of its actors, especially [James] McAvoy and [Michael] Fassbender, who have a warm rapport, and the too-often undervalued [Kevin] Bacon, who exults in full-bore perfidy."
In fact, many critics seem to think it's the rapport between Fassbender and McAvoy that's one of the best things about this fully stuffed movie. Manohla Dargis at the New York Times says, "The new movie is lighter in tone and look than its predecessors, and appreciably less self-serious than those directed by Bryan Singer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also feels less personal, though Mr. Vaughn gets satisfying performances and copious tears, along with sex appeal, from his leading men. Mr. Vaughn doesn’t bring conviction to the story’s identity politics (say it loud, I’m mutant and I’m proud), but he gives Mr. Fassbender and Mr. McAvoy room to bring the brotherly love."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr also hearts Fassbender and McAvoy, but he's less enamored with the film's use of real-life events from the 1960s: " 'First Class' tries to honor the dueling canons of the original Marvel print universe and the recent movie franchise and doesn't sprain its neck too badly. The real world is another matter; the way this movie wraps itself around historical calamities like the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which takes up the entire climax) is disingenuous and occasionally unsettling."
Roger Ebert gives the film a passable two-and-a-half-star review, but strangely, he seems to still be angry with Vaughn for his last film, "Kick-Ass." He writes, "Director Matthew Vaughn gave us 'Kick-Ass' (2010), in which an 11-year-old girl was hammered almost to death for our entertainment. This movie lacks comparable violence, but is louder. At least all the X-Men are old enough to see an R-rated movie without adult supervision. Not that 'X-Men' is R-rated; god forbid that a comic-book movie should turn away a single eager ticket-buyer."
But the critics are critics and the fans are something entirely. So how does "X-Men: First Class" play to its base? Ain't It Cool News head geek Harry Knowles likes it but doesn't love it. In his typical stream-of-consciousness style, he writes that "It is one of the best Marvel films, but ... what keeps me from going over the moon for the film is my far stronger love for the original comic material. I can put it aside, appreciate the film, love it as a "What If" kind of story ... but the day FOX gets a great team to adapt the original Claremont run of X-MEN ... Hell, I'd flat out begin it with the story from GIANT SIZE X-MEN 1 -- and then play from there."
With all the comic-book excess on screens this summer, will "X-Men: First Class" find a place on your pull list?
— Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: James McAvoy, left, and Michael Fassbender play rivals in "X-Men: First Class." Photo credit: Murray Close / 20th Century Fox.