I did not preview "X-Men: First Class" because I had to attend a simultaneous screening of "Super 8" instead before interviewing one of the actors, Zach Mills. (You can read that interview here.) But I was curious about "X-Men," so the bride and I caught a late-Sunday-afternoon screening. Some notes follow the jump.
Plainly Fox had expected big things from the movie, considering the abundance of trailers stacked in front of it: "Real Steel," "Warrior," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and -- go figure -- "Mr. Popper's Penguins." The rest of the trailers appeared to aim directly at male viewers (even "Dragon Tattoo" seemed heavier on footage of Daniel Craig than Rooney Mara), so I guess "Penguins" inclusion assumed that Jim Carrey still has a testosterone following. Still, by the time we got to "X-Men," there were already reports that the weekend box-office returns had disappointed -- although the turnout for a Sunday matinee on a nice day outside was pretty good. Heaven knows I've sat in less crowded theaters.
As for the movie itself, I would give it 3 stars out of a possible 4, based on the effectiveness of the action, story and characterization during the first three-quarters or so of the movie.* For those of you tuning in late, the movie deals with the early years of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), most compellingly with Magneto and his journey from Holocaust survivor to super-villain.
I use that latter term with some reservation, since much of "First Class" makes the argument also put forth in other X-Men material that Magneto's point of view is not entirely wrong -- that humans cannot be trusted to become or remain benign about mutants. It's an argument that works even more for me right now because I've been reading Richard J. Evans' three-volume history of the Third Reich -- I'm in the third volume now -- and it is rife with descriptions of how people, even supposedly well-intentioned ones, act against people they deem "sub-human." The movie offers more than good reason for Magneto to declare "Never again."
That said, Fassbender has a far better role than McAvoy, whose blandness is especially evident here. Nor did I see much in the way of impressive acting in the other mutants. Jennifer Lawrence, so good in "Winter's Bone" and "Poker House," just doesn't have much to work with here. There's already been a kerfluffle about January Jones's acting, and I think it's unfair to dog her; she is playing her character -- an icy villainess with deep roots in James Bond lore -- exactly the way it should be played. Look at her in "Mad Men" or in her cameo in "Pirate Radio," and you can see a more than capable actress at work. The unfortunate fact about "X-Men: First Class" is that it is less about the acting than the atmosphere. Fans, after all, know basically where the story is headed -- and the issue is how much will we enjoy the ride there.
Matthew Vaughn, who directed the much better "Kick-Ass," has a good sense of pace and of visuals, and "First Class" embraces Sixties-adventure style fully; you can easily imagine Kevin Bacon saying, "I expect you to die, Mr. Bond!" The big action moments work relatively well. But the movie does fall short in plot; there's a moment around midpoint where Bacon's villain could end the movie -- only, in defiance of all logic, does not.
*I have been seeing a lot of 3-stars-ish movies lately (Super 8, Tree of Life, this) and I suspect it's coming in part from the way my daily life is making me want some pure entertainment. As art, "Tree of Life" is often magnificent but it lags as entertainment, where the evident flaws in "First Class" and "Super 8" did not keep me from enjoying them in a get-out-of-my-daily-life kind of way.