X-Men: First Class (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 06/17/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s kind of ridiculous, the pure quantity of superhero movies that have been rolling out for the past couple of years.  Marvel Comics in particular has amped up its production of movies, preparing for next summer’s Avengers movie, giving each of the characters their own solo film in the build-up.  While that run is quite unprecedented and a somewhat interesting, though also deplorable marketing beast that it is, the situation of The X-Men as well as other franchises, is the “re-boot”.

While re-boot or re-imagining is the common style of re-make these days, what’s even more unusual is how short the cycles are now between one run of movies and a whole new era of directing, producing, casting to attempt to re-invigorate a franchise when it’s hit its first commercial failure.

The first X-Men series of films (X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), spanning 2000-2006 with its own one-off spin-off (so far) was a success story for Marvel and the comic book movie in general.  The X-Men have long been a fan favorite, but the characters’ designs and powers would have been very difficult to create without digital special effects.  And the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the comic’s most popular character, made him a star and probably helped pave the way for all comers since.  But the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, which had the feel of a final installment to a trilogy of sorts, was also a bomb of a film.

For X-Men: First Class, the re-boot does something akin to the successful Star Trek (2009) re-boot, going back to a time before the other series came together, an origin story in which the main characters are younger and more vital.  Of course, the Star Trek re-boot had a clever angle of telling a story that hadn’t been told before.  X-Men: First Class goes back to paint the origin of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and others, perhaps re-tweaking tales that have been told in comic books before.

They set it in the early 1960’s, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a tweak on real world history.  It’s also interestingly close to the real world creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so there is an uncanny sense of aptness in this setting.

The story is very much about how Magneto and Xavier started as colleagues and how they came to be on separate sides of a political spectrum, and eventually arch enemies.  The film gets a lot from McAvoy and Fassbender, who both have charm and give the film some of its striven for depth.

It’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who only a year ago brought out the fun and ironic superhero movie Kick-As (2010).  Here he’s working with some heavy comic book lore, the origin story of one of comic-book-dom’s favorite gangs, and telling it alongside historical portents of WWII and what almost became WWIII.  And he does a pretty good job of it, considering the sprawling amount of narrative that the film has to pack in.

With your average single superhero movie, one villain/one hero can make for a more balanced story, a little more time to invest in the good and the evil.  When films add more and more heroes and villains they often get off-track.  For a film about a team, each hero and villain needing some significant back-story to give them depth, not to mention the big build-up to when the hero(es) have to save the world in a big showdown…there is just a lot of exposition to contain in a two hour plus movie.

I took the kids, who were nonplussed about going to the movie, but they both enjoyed it.  I do have to give it to Clara who observed to me that “All the characters have superpowers but the women have to take their clothes off to use theirs’.”  Which is an astute feminist criticism from a 7 year old girl.