Saturday, 14 June 2014

Review: X-Men: First Class

When I was about ten years old, I saw the first X-Men movie at a friend's house. Soon after, I acquired a soon to be well-worn VHS copy of the film. In May 2003 I went to the cinema to catch the sequel, which I thought was even better.

In 2006, hack-for-hire Brett Ratner (Red Dragon, Rush Hour 3) replaced regular X-director Bryan Singer to make the widely-reviled X-Men 3. Three years later, the property produced the laughable X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

By the time X-Men: First Class (2011, trailercame out, the series was tied in a two-good, two-bad score for me. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this one. A '60s-set iteration featuring a young Professor X played by James McAvoy and a young Magneto played by Michael Fassbender sounded promising to me.

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In 1962, the CIA recruits 'mutation expert' Charles (Professor X) Xavier to help them foil a dastardly plot by mutant villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

On the way, Xavier meets and teams up with Erik (Magneto) Lehnsherr, who is also hunting down Shaw for his Nazi war crimes.

My Take

These first two X-Men movies remind me of Terminator 2 in that they are dazzling special-effects action movies, but they also have clever ideas and solid characterization.

On one side of the series' central conflict is authoritative psychic Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who wants mutants to coexist with humankind. On the other side is metal-manipulating concentration camp survivor Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), who hates humanity and wishes to eliminate it in favor of mutant-kind.

There's also a classic, Star Wars-y dynamic between straight-arrow Cyclops (James Marsden), roguish Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and their mutual love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

In X-Men: First Class our merry band of mutants is comprised of wooden, model-looking people who lack any distinction beyond their assorted computer-generated superpowers.

And here, sporting the lovely CGI wings by Industrial Light and Magic, is Zoƫ 'daughter of Lenny' Kravitz.

Most comic-book movies like Superman: The Movie seem to be based on straightforward wish-fulfilment. X-Men 1 and 2 do indulge in super-powered fantasy, but they also use the idea of a newly-evolved mutant race as an allegory to comment on racist and homosexual bigotry.

The first X-Men movie opens with a congressional debate between Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) and telekinetic mutant Dr. Jean Grey, during which the two discuss whether or not to pass the 'Mutant Registration Act':

(Kelly:) 'Are mutants dangerous?'

'I'm afraid that's an unfair question, Senator Kelly. After all, the wrong person behind the wheel of a car can be dangerous.'

'Well, we do licence people to drive.'

'Yes, but not to live. Senator, it is a fact that mutants who have come forward and revealed themselves publicly have been met with fear, hostility, even violence.'

For a blockbuster film, this is pretty intelligent and interesting dialogue. In First Class, the bigoted mutants' and humans' crass outbursts punch you in the face with their bluntness: 'Where do I find the more evolved people?' 'Just let us normal people go.'

Magneto spends several scenes lurking around in a black turtleneck and uttering portentous lines like 'I've been a lab rat. I know one when I see one.' This guy will grow up to be Ian McKellen. How about some class?

When CIA official Oliver Platt introduces Xavier to scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Xavier psychically recognizes McCoy as a fellow mutant and exclaims: 'How wonderful. Another mutant, already here. Why didn't you say?'

'Say what?' asks Platt.

'Because you don't know. [Looks directly at Hank] I am so, so terribly sorry.'

So instead of gracefully extricating himself from the social gaffe of outing a guy who is obviously secretive about being a mutant, he just gaffes even harder. This is meant to be the man who will become Patrick Stewart; how 'bout some tact?

'I see you also have sadomasochistic fantasies and an Oedipal complex. Oops, did I say that out loud? I am so, so terribly sorry.'

Has there ever been a good prequel? The Godfather Part II doesn't count because it takes place mostly after the first one. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Casino Royale don't count because the Jones and Bond films are all self-contained episodes.

Otherwise, there's refuse like Hannibal Rising and the Star Wars prequels. I know I'm in the minority, but I also felt that Prometheus and the Hobbit films were pretty weak.

One of the big draws of the Star Wars prequels was the promise of seeing the dissolution of the friendship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and a proto-Darth Vader. Likewise, X-Men: First Class was supposed to be about Magneto and Professor X becoming friends, then enemies.

Like the Star Wars prequels, First Class forgets to include the friendship part. It's as if the writers are coasting on the fact that the audience already knows Xavier and Lehnsherr are old friends because Patrick Stewart mentioned it in a previous movie.

Well, here in First Class Lehnsherr is a creepy psychopath from the get-go, and his relationship with Xavier is marked by their contentious arguing. I guess the downfall of a friendship is the exciting, emotional part to dramatize; but the drama doesn't exist if there is no friendship to 'fall' from. Having each character address the other as 'friend' doesn't solve this problem.

'I shall call you 'friend', seeing as we are friends now.'

There are also countless in-jokes that refer to previous X-Men films. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells a college-aged Xavier that the title 'Professor' suits him. At one point, Xavier says 'Next thing you know, I'll be going bald.' A CIA guy named Stryker irrelevantly mentions his son William, who will one day become the villain of X-Men 2.

I can understand a sequel making references to previous instalments, but a prequel doing the same thing makes no chronological sense. If this film is meant to be the 'first' one, then I feel it should spend less time making exclusive in-jokes and more time being accessible to series newcomers. 

The end of First Class is a desperate scramble to tie up loose ends. Mystique hooks up with Magneto out of nowhere - or, because we know they are together in the 'later' earlier films. In the final minutes of the movie Xavier sustains a bullet wound to his spine. In case the audience didn't pick up on the fact that this spinal injury explains Xavier's paraplegia, the movie has Xavier yell 'I can't feel my legs!' three times.

Prequels like this feel so slavishly beholden to the original films. Either tie up loose ends neatly, or don't bother at all. If Xavier is still able to walk at the end of this prequel, I'd assume that he had some kind of accident in the 30 year interval between this film and the first X-Men.

I got this weird exploitation vibe from First Class. I don't mean that it was a blood-drenched, limbs-flying '70s-type schlock flick, but I did get the sense that director/writer Matthew Vaughn was consciously pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating (or the UK-equivalent 12A rating, which I assume was the English director's template.) First Class is crammed with as much rating-permitted violence and titillation as possible, assumedly to appeal to 12-year-old boys.

Vaughn has Magneto viciously murder several hired goons, but he maintains his rating by keeping the violence bloodless.

12A movies are famously allowed one F-bomb each, and First Class clearly planned its opportunity.

12A doesn't allow out-and-out nudity, but Vaughn does the next best thing by having his female characters wear as little as possible. Mystique's natural, non-shapeshifted appearance is essentially Jennifer Lawrence naked. Shaw's right-hand goon Emma Frost (January Jones) doesn't say or do much, but she does live up to Frost's reputation of being one of the most scantily-clad female characters in comics history.

CIA agent Moira MacTaggert's (Rose Byrne) improvised plan to infiltrate a secretive nightclub consists of tearing her clothes off and sneaking in behind a train of strippers.

'Quick, take my blouse and skirt. This is the only way.'

Then there's the questionable accuracy of the film's 1962 setting, which critic Erik Lundegaard explains well in his First Class review:

'How did [Charles] know 'groovy' would be such a hip word three years later? Can he also see into the future? Is that why his hair is longish before the Beatles even recorded 'Love Me Do'?...1962 is not 1964 is not 1974 is not today, but the movie gloms them all together and we wind up with a cultural and historical hodgepodge.

'Shaw in 1962 looks like a 1974 swinger. London is swinging even though it didn't begin to swing until, what, 1965?...I know. It's a blockbuster. It's a superhero film. But I can't leave this aspect alone.'

In terms of our pop-culture images of each decade, the Sixties didn't even begin to look like the hippy-dippy, capital-S Sixties until around '65. 1962 looked closer to our pop-culture image of the Fifties.

If the filmmakers wanted to be period-accurate, all they had to do was study the first few seasons of Mad Men. If the filmmakers wanted First Class to feature a medley of fashions from all different decades, then why not set it in...I don't know, the present?

'Have either of you seen my iPod?'

Magneto's musical cue is this distorted, Queens of the Stone Age-esque heavy rock guitar tune that I found distractingly period-inaccurate. Why not use timeless orchestral score like the first two movies? I guess Vaughn stuck it in because guitar riffs are another item on the checklist of awesome things 12 year-old boys like.

Writing about First Class makes me feel like a teacher who is disappointed in a stellar student's passable work. First Class is your average dumb Hollywood blockbuster, but I feel let down because I know that the series has been, and is, capable of so much more. 

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In 2013, X-Men spinoff The Wolverine left me disgruntled yet again. Bryan Singer's 2014 franchise return X Men: Days of Future Past also disappointed me. I understood why as soon as I spied First Class writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman in the credits.

X-Men: Apocalypse is now in production, with Singer directing again and X-Men 2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris penning the script. Call me a zealot, but I hold out hope that this one will be good.

Further Reading

For more Matthew Vaughn derision, you can see my post about Kick-Ass.



Screengrabs: X-Men: First Class was produced by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Bad Hat Harry Productions, in association with Marvel Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions, Ingenious Film Partners and Dune Entertainment III. The UK DVD was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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