I remember in 2000 when Bryan Singer's X-Men came out. I thought it was okay. After reading the works of Grant Morrison (and later Joss Whedon, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Kieron Gillen) I realized why I wasn't smitten with the movie as others my age were. It was just really hard to capture the spirit and scope of the X-Men without giving into those cliche, typical, and overdone action-movie tropes that will ultimately be a part of every blockbuster. X-Men 2 was more personal with the characters so I thought that was an improvement, but X-Men 3 and Wolverine felt to me like a step backwards. Like Brett Ratner, Gavin Hood, and co. gave into the stigmas and stereotypes that come with presenting a summer action film (among other issues). For this prequel, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass) doesn't completely avoid all that I mentioned, but alongside co-writers Singer and Jane Goldman, he masks what I would normally find trashy by having excellent drama and characterization.
Back in X-Men, the drama and emotion is divvied up between three characters- Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr, and Logan being played by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Hugh Jackman respectively. Hugh Jackman can carry a film, no question about that. The plot to Wolverine was just so dismally lame that as an actor he had little to work with. So with the character (semi-)removed from the equation of this prequel, the drama lies between the tragic downfall of the former brotherhood that Charles and Erik once held. Stewart and McKellen are acting giants of their generation, so how do you compete with them? Get the acting giants of a new generation with James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Lehnsherr. Yes, I'm going to be a movie nerd and list off their credentials. McAvoy was phenomenal in The Last King of Scotland, Atonment, The Last Station, and The Conspirator. Fassbender was phenomenal in Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, and Jane Eyre. I'm delighted to say that both are expectedly phenomenal here.
Don't get me wrong, there is a well-rounded supporting cast including Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man), Rose Byrne (FX's Damages), a bunch of excellent newcomers, and Oliver Platt (renowned character actor that can be currently seen on Showtime's The Big C). McAvoy and Fassbender are just in another league just in terms of their screen presence. The pair is triumphant both in paying homage to the future Stewart/McKellen interpretations of the characters while still carving out their own emotional psyches ranging from intense to playful. I do have a quick gripe. One performance that doesn't work at all is the beautiful January Jones as Emma Frost. As Saturday Night Live showed us, she can't seem to successfully pull audiences in unless she is playing Betty Draper on Mad Men (and having read the comics, I'm upset this character isn't even written as three-dimensional as the character is in the comics). Then again, she is only a henchwoman to Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw. Speaking of, Bacon is perfectly cast as this villain in a performance that is both suiting for the actor while still being something different for him.
As far as the story is concerned, Vaughn has also created a very rich subtext by setting the discovery of mutant-kind against the Cold War creating such a suave atmosphere. That is the beauty of such an ensemble piece and it's when blockbusters work the best- when you have such an abundance of character-driven moments and plot-driven moments that you can switch between the two. The problem is, I think occasionally the film would make me feel like I was watching that typical stuff again (see my mini-rant in the first paragraph in case you forgot) and then the script/editing-choices wouldn't pick up at the right moment to take me somewhere else. That is probably the film's only flaw and it happened VERY rarely.
Now, I've spent an hour or so trying to formulate my thoughts on this as I was taken in by it all, so here is the conclusion I've come to. First, the movies that matter in terms of quality (as in those that aren't made for monetary purposes) are not meant to entertain you. Absolutely not. You are meant to "feel". You are meant to walk out of the theater having been through an experience. If you liked a comedy and you laughed or you liked an action movie and you cheered or if you liked a drama and you cried... that "entertainment" is the result of the "feeling"; the emotion. That is what makes good movies. I know that X-Men: First Class was a very good movie because at some point I forgot I was watching an X-Men movie. In fact I think I'm picking up on my subconscious, which made me think I was watching a franchise-less science-fiction movie that starred two phenomenal actors the whole time. I think I was just too busy being in the midst of enjoying a very well-told story and therefore having a memorable experience. As corny and emasculating as it sounds, I was just "feeling".
Funny thing is, I didn't even realize this when the movie ended. I found myself going "ehhh... it was okay." Then I sat and thought about its scope. The reason why I was having trouble coming up with an on-the-spot reaction was because I was too dumbfounded that a blockbuster can actually elicit a response from me that says something more than "that was some good eye-candy".
Matthew Vaughn is 4 for 4. Can't wait for him to be 5 for 5.
It's late, hopefully I catch the spelling errors tomorrow.