How to Save a Franchise: X-Men: First Class (2011)

I sat here for two hours trying to write a review of this film and I just couldn't do it. I know I enjoyed myself in the theater. I also know I saw a lot of flaws. Then I realized what my problem was. To me, X-Men: First Class doesn't really function as a stand alone film. It's an attempt to bring some of the sparkle back to the X-Men film franchise after the third feature left audiences confused and underwhelmed.

So what does X-Men: First Class do to fix these problems? For starters, even do we're being introduced to a bunch of new characters (Havoc, Banshee, Angel, Azrael, Emma Frost, Sebastian Shaw, Darwin, Riptide, and Moira McTaggert) and reintroduced to a handful of others (Professor Xavier, Beast, Mystique, Magneto), the film doesn't feel overwhelming. Each of these characters are clearly defined. They might not all get flashy acting or action sequences, but you can quickly identity who is who.

In addition, the time period selection was perfect. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a fascinating chapter in American history and X-Men: First Class screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn use it to great effect. The CIA is trying to hunt down covert communists in congress. The United States has just placed missiles in Turkey pointed directly at the USSR, which is forcing the USSR to consider retaliation against the United States. The nation is framed as a place of fear and distrust. What better time to introduce mutants--good and bad--to the world?

Sebastian Shaw is trying to play both sides of international politics to cause a nuclear war. Professor Xavier is trying to cooperate with the CIA to protect the nation with his students. And the CIA is doubtful of the entire process because a female agent, Moira, is running the training institute. It's a brilliant way of leading into the well-established war on mutants from the first three films.

Then there's the caliber of performances. I know quite a few critics and bloggers have dogged on the actors in this film, but I didn't see one bad performance. January Jones is an easy target in this film and I just don't understand why. She's playing an ice queen villainess and she does it well. She's cold, calculated, and tough as her diamond form. Just because a film role doesn't ask for more range doesn't mean a performer is bad or flat.

The same kind of thing can be said of Jennifer Lawrence. People are dismissing Winter's Bone (which many of these same people didn't even see to begin with judging by how many proudly admitted to not seeing it before the Oscars) as some kind of fluke based on a character in a superhero movie. She plays Mystique, a confused young woman in this film. On the one side, she wants to be accepted for who she is: a slowly maturing mutant with blue scales who can shape-shift into any person she wants to. On the other side, she just wants to pass as normal. She's jealous of Xavier because Xavier's ability isn't manifested physically. He looks like a normal man where she looks like a blue lizard creature.

Lawrence brings a lot of youthful energy and, yes, angst to a role that requires just that. When she's given a few moments to stretch her chops--when she confronts Xavier in her natural form halfway through the film and a minor conflict on the ship in particular--she exceeds any expectations I had for this character. There is angry, but also confusion, sorrow, fear, and cold calculations of how to behave. It's moments like this that let me know that Lawrence, like the rest of the cast in this film, went above and beyond the call of duty for a superhero picture.

Marvel managed to fix a lot of wrongs with this film. The fear is that in future films of this new series, Marvel might let people go for flash over substance. This is a mistake. X-Men has always been a highly politicized and socially relevant comic series. Current events and social issues always influenced the comic. Did you think they just imagined the humans versus mutants conflict with no outside influence? That conflict even covered the reaction to homosexuals after the discovery of AIDS and HIV. The third X-Men film forgot that it needed context for its message. This film restored that key element of the franchise. May we never lose it again.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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