This year’s summer movie slate boasts an incredible amount of superhero and comic book film adaptations. From the CGI-filled frames of “Green Lantern” to the World War II-set “Captain America,” men in tights are certainly in fashion this season.
Yet, if history has shown us anything when it comes to superhero films, it’s that it’s hard to make one that pleases both critics and fans – as well as stands apart from the pack on its own artistic merit.
That is perhaps why “X-Men: First Class,” which is undoubtedly the best superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” seems like such a feat.
Following the origins of the X-Men mutant team, “X-Men: First Class” is more in line with the adventures of Sean Connery-era James Bond films than your standard superhero outing.
Along with a dash of the European sensibilities present in spy thrillers like “Danger: Diabolik,” the X-Men are assembled to battle an international race for nuclear arms that culminates in a thrilling set piece that takes place in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Taking the “X-Men” back to the swinging ’60s is Matthew Vaughn, who recently directed the sloppy but entertaining comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass.” While “Kick-Ass” was an amalgamation of genres ranging from kung fu to spaghetti Westerns, “X-Men: First Class” is far more restrained and finely tuned.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ “Hero Complex” prior to the film’s production, Vaughn stated that the superhero genre had been “mined to death,” and the opportunity to make a good superhero movie is “only going to be there two or three more times.”
Those comments appeared to be a sign of Vaughn’s arrogance before the film’s release, but he’s definitely proved he has an eye for quality control with “First Class.”
Assembled to play each uncanny individual is an acting pedigree perhaps more notable than even that of “The Dark Knight.” While critically lauded actors such as James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon play the film’s leads, veteran character actors such as Michael Ironside and Olek Krupa also sneak their way into the film.
Vaughn has created an “X-Men” film that not only has the visual flair, but also the sort of acting talent found in Oscar-friendly or arthouse films, and he packed all of this into one summer blockbuster.
Also worth mentioning is the cast of the younger X-Men team, which packs a noteworthy punch as well. “About a Boy” actor Nicolas Hoult and “Winter’s Bone” actress Jennifer Lawrence are standouts, and while she may have limited screen time, “Bridesmaids” actress Rose Byrne makes every little bit count.
However, what many fans of the “X-Men” franchise will want to know is how it compares to the four installments that precede “X-Men: First Class.”
To be brutally honest, it is far better than any of those films – and it certainly is more impressive, confident and well made than it has any right to be.
While director Bryan Singer’s first two “X-Men” installments were beautifully crafted, one can’t help but feel both films’ need to play into the many tropes of the superhero genre.
As for the latter films in the series, 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “First Class” demonstrates a level of craft and good taste that were entirely missing from both those installments.
For all its merit, “First Class” has a few downsides of its own. While the film is able to reboot the creatively bankrupt franchise the way director J.J. Abrams did with “Star Trek,” had it been given more time away from the films that preceded it, it could have been even better.
While it’s understandable that the expectations of fans of the old films must be met for the film to succeed financially, one can hope that a planned second installment can follow a story arc that is entirely its own.
Vaughn has a unique vision of what an X-Men film should be, and he certainly follows it. Setting the film against the tensions arising from the nuclear struggle between America and the Soviet Union during the turbulent ’60s gives the film a James Bond-style we would have never known this franchise needed.
While we can hope that another installment will only lead to Vaughn further exploring the new X-Men world he has created, “First Class” can more than suffice for now.
With the awful “Thor” already behind us and the expected CGI-filled mess “Green Lantern” only weeks away, perhaps “X-Men: First Class” can be the first superhero film of the year that doesn’t need a huge box office gross to prove it has staying power.