Those anticipating Harry Potter withdrawal can take heart: X-Men: First Class is every bit as good as any of the Harry Potter films. Matthew Vaughn’s franchise prequel turns out to be a superb, stylish piece of modern mythology.
In 2000, director Bryan Singer delivered the comic-book-based X-Men, a mutant superhero action-adventure that also served as cleverly subversive sociopolitical allegory. Broadly dealing with the universal adolescent desire to “fit in” (while reflecting the angst of closeted youth), X-Men also posed the philosophical difference between peace-seeking Professor X and “by any means necessary” Magneto as mutant-civil-rights counterparts to MLK and X.
All of those themes get full play in the Singer-produced X-Men: First Class, with the added frisson of making text out of what once was sociopolitical subtext. The climactic crisis to which First Class builds is the Cuban Missile Crisis, which turns out to have a hidden history involving one set of mutants plotting mass destruction and another planning to prevent it. Before we get there, First Class deals with Nazi war crimes and secret CIA research into the paranormal. As for the superhero history, fear not: X-Men: First Class starts pretty much from day one, rewarding geeky foreknowledge but not requiring it.
Concentration camp survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) will not rest until he hunts down the Nazi scientist—Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw—responsible for Lehnsherr’s greatest trauma. Meanwhile, child of privilege Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) becomes the world’s leading expert in genetic mutation. Both gifted with amazing powers demonstrating the evolution of the human genome, Erik and Charles will one day be supervillain Magneto and superhero Professor X, but first they will meet, bond, and be tragically torn apart by their unmovable cross purposes.
In a well-choreographed large-scale action sequence, Charles saves Erik from disaster, and they form a tentative alliance to pursue the shadowy Shaw, who has been manipulating events on the world stage. The loose-cannon Erik doesn’t play well with his CIA handlers (Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt), but he comes to an understanding with Charles. Charles' childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is already on board. So is young scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult)—a.k.a. Beast—who gives the telepathic Charles the technological boost he needs to find more mutant recruits: Alex “Havok” Summers (Lucas Till), Sean “Banshee” Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), Armando “Darwin” Munoz (Edi Gathegi), and “Angel” Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz).
This “first class” of X-Men gets a first-class origin story, as directed by Vaughn and scripted by a bevy of writers including Vaughn, his regular co-writer Jane Goldman, and the team of Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz (Thor). Above all, this is a story of self-actualization through self-discipline and self-understanding, a message that will particularly resonate with young viewers finding their own paths. But it’s also about choosing a relationship, collaborative or adversarial, to the political and typically oppressive forces that rule our world. With carefully wrought emotional contexts, the characters are moved to action in moving ways.
Okay, okay, and it’s fun, too. This is the witty, winking, '60s-chic version of superhero adventure, with enough globetrotting, swingin’ gentleman's clubs, and Ken Adam-style lairs for a Sean Connery Bond marathon. The acting is above par all around, and the action and visual effects (designed by John Dyskstra of Star Wars fame) are top-notch, for some decidedly not-stupid mutant tricks. More power(s) to them: here’s hoping this reborn franchise makes a mint.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
In its home-video debut, X-Men: First Class scores high marks. The film's hi-def transfer looks terrific on Blu-ray, expertly preserving the filmmakers' intent in contrast, color and detail. The picture is, of course, spotless, while also preserving the grain structure; perfect contrast and deep black level helpsto give the image its crisp feel, and colors are richly rendered. The state-of-the-art lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't miss a trick: the effects work and music are robust, and discrete separation mightily impresses for a fully immersive effect that ably recreates the theatrical experience in ways big and subtle, while never sacrificing the all-important prioritization and clarity of dialogue.
The Blu-ray comes with an added disc giving access to a Digital Copy. The release also comes with instructions for downloading ten free X-Men Marvel digital comics. With feature playback come two added options, the first being the Isolated Score in 5.1 Dolby Surround (HD), a music-only track of Henry Jackman's score. The second option is X Marks the Spot, a collection of featurettes also accessible directly through a "Play All" option on the menu (19:55, HD); the menu also offers a listing for direct access to any one of the featurettes. This good and informative selection uses film clips, cast and crew interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage and materials to cover a variety of topics related to concept, design, production and post-production, including a piece about the film's cameo appearances and a cool deconstruction of the title sequence.
The next feature is the Cerebrus Mutant Tracker (HD), an interactive feature emulating the Cerebrus technology from the X-Men franchise. The idea is to "track" mutants by accessing dossiers (in the form of video profiles and franchise film clips) and noting "character connections." Delving more deeply will connect the viewer to content on BD Live.
The best bonus features are a selection of nifty "Deleted Scenes" (HD, 14:07) and the feature-length making-of documentary "Children of the Atom" (1:09:49, HD). The documentary comes with tons of intriguing set footage of scenes being shot and, of course, interviews with the lion's share of key cast and crew, including writer-director Matthew Vaughn, co-writer Jane Goldman, producer Bryan Singer, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, producer Simon Kinberg, producer Tarquin Pack, and stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Álex González, Jason Flemyng, Zoë Kravitz, Ed Gathegi, Lucas Till, Nicholas Hoult, and Caleb Landry Jones, among others.
While one suspects Fox has left themselves room for a more feature-packed reissue somewhere down the line, this remains a hard-to-resist hi-def release of one of the summer's most satisfying pictures.
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