Comic book movies can be broken into three categories: Watchable, Really Pretty Good, and Godawful. Fans of comic books and/or action movies will enjoy the Watchable ones, while Really Pretty Good movies can be enjoyed by almost anyone capable of suspending disbelief for two to three hours. Only the biggest die-hard fanboy in denial or brain-dead special effects addict can sit-through, let alone praise, films in the Godawful variety.
A few examples: Recent watchable comic book movies include the first Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Bryan Singer’s Superman, and the first two Spider-Man movies. Really Pretty Good selections include both Christopher Nolan Batman movies, the Bryan Singer X-Men movies, Iron Man 1 and maybe Iron Man 2. Ang Lee’s Hulk, X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four 2 were Godawful.
I am pleased to say that X-Men: First Class is Really Pretty Good, though I can’t agree at all with the folks who are claiming it contends for “best comic book movie ever.”
What X:FC does well is to introduce a historic context and a retro-feel into the super-hero milieu, better than any movie except perhaps Brad Bird’s under-appreciated “the Incredibles.” Comic books themselves are, after all, a bit of a holdover from a bygone era, and while most super-hero movies have planted a flag squarely in the “gritty hero” era of the late 20th Century, the Golden Age of comic book heroes was undeniably the decades following World War 2. Placing the origins of the X-Men against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis is inspired – it gives the franchise depth and history, allows the production to play with costuming and sets in a genre where costumes and sets have become hackneyed and boring, and permits the writers to blend bits of plot lines from X-Men comic books published 30 or 40 years apart. I award a few bonus points for managing to work in a couple of very brief cameos by former X-Men cast members Rebecca Romijn and Hugh Jackman that actually fit the narrative and make sense (provided, in Jackman’s case, that you know some background about the character). While my fanboy heart does break a little bit that they scrapped the original team according to comic book canon, they were able to pay tribute to some classic X-Men ignored by previous movies.
Does the movie make missteps? Yes, but they are mostly forgivable. There are a few major plot holes, and a number of small goofy moments that elicited laughs from the audience – like captioning a sprawling campus as “Secret CIA Base,” or Emma Stone walking into a meeting with a Russian military official dressed like an Austin Powers fem-bot. January Jones really seems to struggle with the whole “acting” thing, and once the X-Men ride into battle, even in the 1960s they still manage to dress in the genre-cliche black leather uniform, with a throwaway line about “g-forces” explaining the anachronistic costume choice.
Overall, though, the film represents very good choices on the parts of the filmmakers. The film’s greatest strength is that it takes its time and luxuriates a bit in the formation of the team. Often, super-hero origins occupy the first twenty minutes of the movie, moving out of the way quickly so we can get to the action faster. In this case, the movie really does occupy itself with the origin of the X-Men, managing to integrate a plot, action, and rising tension in between those origins instead of pushing them aside. While the film is not revolutionary, it’s a solid effort, and one of the better movies you’re likely to see in the crowded super-hero genre.