June 10, 2011

X-Men: First Class (06/10/2011)

Lettergrade: B

X-Men: First Class is the fifth chapter in the exciting X-Men trilogy. I should admit up front that I'm a sucker for these movies, even the shitty ones. I find the overall X-Men premise to be pretty damn cool and its characters to be endlessly intriguing... and all that clouds my judgement.

It's a better picture than the last one, 2009's TV movie-ish X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I know that much. I'd probably place it well above the original X-Men movie from 2000 too, which was alright at the time, but feels kinda short-sighted and limited compared to where the series went later. I might put it on par with 2003's X2: X-Men United and 2006's fan-reviled X-Men 3: The Last Stand, actually, in that both films, like this one, deliver some exciting action set-pieces, a little bit of philosophical fat to chew on, and several neat scenes where mutants do cool shit. Is it a great movie? No. None of them are, but if all of the popular Marvel superheroes have their roots in various aspects of 60s counter-culture, the specific X-Men characters are the most nuanced and interesting of the bunch.

This one is a prequel to the existing movies, filling in some of the series' under-explored details like how Charles Xavier (later Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto) met, became friends, and then decided to go in very different ideological directions - one of pacifism and the other of radical violence, a sci-fi play on two of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the 60s. The look and feel of the movie is surprisingly retro, drawing a lot of set design (and plot) inspiration from 60s classics like the early James Bond movies, North By Northwest, and the Batman TV show that starred Adam West. They even faithfully recreated the war room set from Dr. Strangelove that never existed in reality. Additionally, the film is a conspiracy theorist's delight, providing - for the first time! - concrete video evidence that evil mutants were trying to start World War III by aggravating the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it took a much nicer set of mutants to stop them.

As the film begins, young Charles (now played by the ├╝ber charismatic James McAvoy) still had hair, and could walk, and looked nothing like Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. From a wealthy family, he's just finishing his doctorate in genetics, and is the sort of randy young cad who uses his secret mutant power, his vast intellect, and the frequent use of words like "groovy" to chase women in bars in a way that would make Austin Powers proud.

Erik has had a very different life. You may remember that at the beginning of the original movie, he became aware of his power while watching his parents get dragged away in a Polish concentration camp in 1944. If you don't remember that, you're in luck: The movie replays the exact footage for you, and then goes a bit further, treating us to an especially sinister scene wherein Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw attempts to unleash the boy's full power by killing his mother in front of him. Shaw is played by Kevin Bacon (so he's connected to every goddamn X-Men character now too), and in the 60s, the older, vengence-driven Erik is played by the wonderfully dark Michael Fassbender, who has become obsessed with hunting down and brutally killing his Nazi captors-in-hiding around the world, in hopes that one of them might point him to Shaw. Weirdly, this part of the movie is almost exactly like Sleepers, which featured Bacon in a very similar, albeit non-mutant, role.

Elsewhere, a sexy CIA agent played by Rose Byrne (recently of Bridesmaids fame), becomes aware of an escalating plot involving nukes, Russia and Cuba, and she enlists Charles for help... yadda, yadda... first mutant school... etc. While Charles delights in finding new mutants and helping them to explore and control their gifts so they might join society at some point in the future, his new BFF Erik grows increasingly resentful at the notion that mutants should have to try to fit in at all, setting the stage for the key divide that has driven pretty much all the other movies.

A number of familiar mutants (Mystique, The Beast, et al) from the earlier ones are recast with younger actors here, and the picture has all sorts of characters knocking around in the background who mean little to me, not being a reader of the X-Men comics, but whose appearances, I'm sure, will make the casual Marvel fan spontaneously ejaculate due to their importance in the overall X-Men universe.

There are previously unseen mutants, too, of course, but I'll be dammned if I know their names, or who they are, or even what they can do most of the time. On the "bad" side, there's a red devil guy who looks like Hellboy's dad, but who has the same powers as Nightcrawler from X2: X-Men United. I don't know what the hell that's about. Oh, and January Jones is on the bad side too, playing a character who can read minds, and who then grows a thick diamond exterior when she wants to for some unclear reason. My guess is that she arrived with the 60s sets that the delivery guys brought over from the Mad Men soundstages, so the director quickly came up with a James Bond style subplot for her to participate in.

My cousin saw the movie before I did, and commented that it had way too much going on... too many characters are introduced and under-utilized, and the picture buckles a little in trying to service them all. I didn't have that problem with it, really, but again all I know of the X-Men universe is what I learned at the movies. Since I haven't read comics where these characters are handled differently (possibly better?), I have no real sense of what opportunities are being missed. The brief peeks we get at lesser mutants aren't necessarily frustrating to me because I don't know how cool it might be to see them doing whatever it is they do in the comics.

Matthew Vaughn (2007's charming Stardust, and last year's awful Kick-Ass) co-wrote and directed the movie. Fans who pay attention to behind-the-scenes stuff might remember that he was originally set to direct X-Men 3, but pulled out about eight weeks before production began, clearing the path for screen auteur Brett Ratner to step in. In a weird sort of way, this picture plays with several elements that 3 did too... Both films feature Dr. Hank McCoy / The Beast in prominent roles, both have scenes of Erik and Charles recruiting younger mutants, and there's even a substitute for part 3's The Cure at one point, and a moral discussion about whether or not mutants should even contemplate using a serum that would reduce their mutation, at least in appearance.

But much like the Highlander and Evil Dead movies, First Class is both intended to be an extension of the other flicks in the series while simultaneously revising and contracting them. Charles and Erik are firm adversaries at the end of the movie, but in the prologue of 3 we see them as much older men... still friends, still recruiting mutants for their school. In part 1, Professor X mentions that Magneto helped him build Cerebro originally, but that's not really possible within the events of this picture. And so on and so on...

That kind of stuff doesn't really bother me either, I must say. Different comic series are known for telling (retelling) their origin stories over and over again, changing the details and relationships pretty much whenever it suits them, and so this semi-reboot is essentially doing the same thing. Sabertooth is Wolverine's brother in Wolverine, but in the original X-Men, he's played by a different actor, and neither seems to recognize the other. Whatever.

My only real beef is with the ending section of the flick, which somewhat succumbs to "prequelitis" in that it quickly puts a lot of elements into place that are already present in the later movies. You can almost see the producers going down the list... Okay, the government's uneasy relationship with mutants, check... Beast blue and hairy, check... Charles in a wheelchair, check... Erik rejecting humanity and making a big dogmatic (and corny) speech about mutantkind, check...

If this X-movie is anything like the other ones, it's won't be long before 20th Century Fox tries to sequelize it as well, possibly as part of a new trilogy. In all likelihood, I'll happily throw down some cash to see the next one too when the time comes, but wouldn't it have been a little more interesting to save some of the connective tissue for future installments than to blow through it all in the last 5 minutes here?

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