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'X-Men First Class': Will superhero fans go for an idea-driven period piece?

June 3, 2011 |  9:16 pm

It worked for "Zelig," and helped make "Forrest Gump" a classic. But can the blending of 20th-century history with movie mythology do something similar for "X-Men: First Class"?

As it seeks to lure filmgoers this weekend, that's just one of the questions facing Matthew Vaughn's comic book movie, which among other things offers an alternate history of the Cuban missile crisis. (Check out the image above, from a Fox  promotional tie-in; all that's missing is McAvoy's Charles Xavier telling JFK he had one too many Dr Peppers.) After all, many in its target audience weren't glints in the eyes of their baby-boomer parents when President Kennedy took to the airwaves to warn of  impending nuclear threats.

As we explore in a print piece in The Times, "X-Men: First Class" may seem like ordinary summer entertainment. But like many of its characters, it conceals some significant quirks.

For starters, the  Xavier-Magneto film is an origin story but not a full-fledged prequel (since it covers some of the same territory alluded to in Bryan Singer's 2000 "X-Men"), a reboot that's also, but not totally, kind of a spin-off. As Fox production president Emma Watts says, "It's so funny that everybody wants to define movies these days -- a prequel, a reboot, an origin story. But every situation is unique. I wish I could give this a clear definition."

It also contains debates about the ethics of revenge not commonly found in a summer entertainment -- or, for that matter, in Vaughn's previous "Kick-Ass."

And it's a film that's trying to live within an existing superhero world while jumpstarting a new franchise, much as Christopher Nolan did with Batman back in 2005. "There's a lot in 'First Class' that harks back to early 'X-Men' films, but also has an energy that's new," said producer Bryan Singer, who came up with the concept for the new film. "You don't want to alter the essence, but you can alter the history."

The movie also has to make do without the leading-man presence of Hugh Jackman and instead try to attract filmgoers with acclaimed but less established actors such as McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. And it marshals them in the hope of achieving the formidable task of washing out the sour taste left in fans' mouths with the last pure 'X-Men" film, Brett Ratner's "X-Men: Last Stand" in 2006.

Still, the reviews thus far have been solid and the early box-office numbers are good.  A sprinkling of history and some morality debates may be, in the end, just what we want with our superheroes.

-- Steven Zeitchik



Critical Mass: X-Men First Class graduates with most critics' honors

With X-Men First Class, Fox tries a new mutation

Photo: A digitally altered image of McAvoy's Charles Xavier and John F. Kennedy from an "X-Men" app promotion. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Comments () | Archives (5)

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Surprising that this review neglected to mention the film "Watchmen" (2009) which also (first ever?) mixed super heroes with Kennedy/Nixon-era history. That was a great film; we'll see if "X-Men" is as good, or if it is a mere copycat effort; or perhaps it will break new ground. The trick to these types of films is to avoid the boring, by not dropping into extended dialogue scenes, yet balancing and blending action and effects with human interaction.

‘X-Men: First Class’ Grosses $21 Million on Opening Day

"The movie also has to make do without the presence of leading man Hugh Jackman and instead try to attract filmgoers with acclaimed but less established actors..."

Let us not forget that when Jackman first appeared in X-Men, to beloved acclaim, no one in America knew who he was, either...

James + ProgGrrl make good points.

I've seen the movie now, and I think the moral debate you're talking about doesn't turn out so well. For one, it's pretty thin on the ground, sandwiched between lots of heroes learning how to use their powers and international espionage. But the bigger problem is that the movie makes Magneto too unseemly to ever sympathize with...much like the X-men comics and movies. Not surprising, but I think there's a reason Watchmen is always held up as the acme of what you can do with superheroes: It's genuinely morally ambiguous.

I really liked the film...although it may have been considered a more serious period piece had they used actual music from that period.

I felt a little let down not hearing some actual music to set the tone.


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