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X-Men: First Class (2011)

Can we get David Hayter back to write these films? If not, can we at least get Brett Ratner back? After making the delightfully over the top, ridiculously grotesque and deeply problematic Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn makes a film that isn’t problematic at all. It’s clear that this film has no issues with being terrible.

The problem is that the entirety of this two hour and ten minute film is simply getting the team together, with a ten minute ending tacked on. What in any other film would be the gathering of allies scene, this film drags out forever. The group even gets together not too longer after the hour mark, the film has to then become a training feature, with the final test being the final climax at the end.

Some would say the film is at its core the ideological conflict between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnscherr (Michael Fassbender). Yes, the only glimmering thread of a compelling story is watching how these two view the world differently, but there’s little nuance, complexity or ambiguity to the way it’s presented. While the first three films placed the mutants in a dire situation of being mistreated by the humans in a politically complex situation, the views of Charles and Erik are simply placed against the backdrop of the cold war.

There is some time spent with a slew of other younger mutants which include shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and supergenius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). The problem is that these characters lack any depth of complexity. They’re simply stereotypes. There’s the jock, the nerd, the oddball, the token black guy and the ex-stripper. In a film series built around an ensemble cast of memorable and nuanced characters, this film utterly fails to capture even a shred of that.

Even more boring than enduring these young mutants is having to spend time with the villains led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Besides having one of the most ridiculously unexplained motivations, two of the villains ostensibly have no personality and the third, Emma Frost (January Jones), exists purely to serve as the obligatory cleavage that must be in every single superhero film.

While superhero films haven’t always had the greatest depictions of females, this one might be the worst. The only other three characters in the film also become sexual objects throughout the film. One of the first character moments from one of the female characters is her stripping to her underwear in order to go ”undercover.”

Then there’s the Mystique character. While she has a rather interesting conflict in trying to embrace her identity as her normal appearance is a scaly blue state, it’s suggested that in order for her to truly embrace herself, she must not only revert to her blue state, but be nude. This becomes ridiculously sexist when a male who undergoes a similar blue condition is not questioned at all in wanting to hide his condition.

Kevin Bacon and January Jones are easily the worst two actors in this film, coming across and hammy and empty-headed respectively. That being said, there rest of the cast isn’t given much to do either. The promising talent of James McAvoy is wasted in what turns out to be a stereotypically dull rich goody-two-shoes character and Jennifer Lawrence, while occasionally charismatic, plays a character that projects every single though and emotion she has.

Michael Fassbender is the only actor that has any moments, not only because a good thirty minutes of the film is devoted to his origins story. Seeing the events that lead to the creation of Magneto proves an interesting character story of how bad things happening to people can skew their perception of people. That being said, after the first couple of scenes, it begins to become a bit redundant and one note.

Truly, what the film needed to do is either focus more on Charles and Erik or make a full ensemble piece, by trying to force the film to be both, it fails at doing either justice. It’s hard to believe that the two great characters brought to life by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are so tritely played out in this film, simple shadows of the characters they would become as they aged, ill-defined and simply summarized.

But more than anything else, X-Men: First Class disappoints as an action film. It’s almost impossible to believe that the director behind Kick-Ass made this film. Where that film had energy, finesse and style, this film has bland cinematography and an over-reliance on special effects. While the scale might be grand, it’s simply an eyesore to look at. This is a superhero film for goodness sakes. You know, the things that come from the comic books that have lots of fantastic colors. How can such a visually dull film come from a medium that is almost defined by its visual allure?

The best part of this film is the five second cameo that reminded me of when the X-Men series had wit, humor and, most importantly, good writing. This is a serious, dull affair, the sort of ponderous superhero movie that’s getting churned out in the wake of The Dark Knight.  After watching this, I’m convinced the superhero movie is in its death throes.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing