I forget sometimes how much I like going to the movies in the middle of the week. The crowds are less, it is a distraction from the obligations of the work week, and it gets me out of the house and out of my rut. I can usually see something that was not high on my list of priority’s after some of the other big films have dominated my attention on the weekend. This week is a little different, I saw X-Men First Class, tonight because I had not rushed in over the weekend, so it was not a second tier choice but it was something that got put off for other reasons. It is nice to have something that was this well put together on the regular week agenda, instead of some movie I chose because it was what started next. I’m sure some of the pleasure I took in tonight’s viewing is a result of not having to be in class at the end of the term, but most of it is due to the quality of the movie.
Ten years ago, we saw the first of the X-Men movies and were also impressed by how well a fantastical story had been translated into a real movie. In a cartoon, you can believe almost anything because it is so unusually imagined in the first place, one more step seems small. When you translate it to film with actors, the results could be laughable. When I was a kid, I was not a big comic geek, but I did prefer Marvel characters to those of the D.C. Universe. However, I have no memory of X-Men at all, my knowledge came only from the animated TV show that my kids watched occasionally. Like I said, we really liked it, but the second X-Men movie was the pinnacle of the story and remains my personal favorite. This new version is an attempt to launch the series anew, which seems strange for a movie franchise that has only been around for a decade and has four successful films to it’s credit. It is true that the last two films were a bit pedestrian in nature, in part because of new directors and a continuing storyline that needed to be wrapped up. This movie works well as a prequel, telling us of the origins of characters we met in earlier films and setting up the conflicts that will make up much of the story we have already seen.
The director on this version, is Matthew Vaughn,who made two of my favorite movies of the last few years: Stardust and Kick Ass. This movie is a larger scale than those things but there are some elements that made him a good choice for this movie. He has a good visual sense when it comes to character and location. He is also solid in getting as much out of a story as possible without too much exposition. Both Dolores and Amanda thought the movie was a little episodic and too quest based. I did not feel that way, I thought there was a pretty natural evolution in the story. There is one sequence that seems a little unnecessary, the capture of a renegade X-Men character in the Soviet Union. I thought there was otherwise good economy in telling us how the X-Men were gathered and how the sides ended up being divided. I have no doubt that there are literature majors and philosophy students that could go into all the allegories that the whole series sets up. This movie does not dwell on those points, rather it acknowledges them and moves on to develop the narrative. The setting of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis works well at providing a danger to the world, but not yet one posed by the war of the X-Men to come.
As I have done in a number of other posting, I would like to recognize some of the character actors that make films work, even if their names do not put butts in the seats. Oliver Platt has been a favorite around our house for years. I had no idea he was in this movie until he showed up. His role looked like it would be significant, but it finished somewhat unsatisfactorily. Michael Ironside is a face everyone will recognize but most will not know by name. He shows up and does a small but effective take on a military commander, a part he has done many times before, and probably why he feels well cast in the bit role. One of the X-Men is played by the kid from “About a Boy”, which remains an always watchable, perfect film, here at our house. I did not recognize him at all but Dolores spotted him pretty quickly.
This is a solid entertainment that raises the quality level of the X-Men franchise back to the peaks that it reached in the first couple of movies. There will be more films in the series as well, but to succeed they will want to take the time necessary to develop a good story, not just a new entry in the franchise. Studios always want product in the pipeline, and a film every two or three years from a pedigree series fits the ticket. Audiences will turn away from most of these films if they fail to meet the standards set early on. The reason the Batman series needed a re-boot is because the movies just became product. X-Men First Class does not feel like an obligatory entry in a franchise based on timing, it feels like a well thought out film and it plays like one that the makers cared about enough to get it right,