Sunday, June 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class: Back to Basics

X-Men: First Class
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Written By: Matthew Vaughn, Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Jane Goldman, from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer. Based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Lucas Till, and Oliver Platt
Director of Photography: John Mathieson, Editors: Lee Smith and Eddie Hamilton, Production Designer: Chris Seagers, Original Music: Henry Jackman
Rated: PG-13 for comic book violence and a clever use of bad language.

            When it was first announced that 20th Century Fox, in their attempts to continue a franchise, would do another origin story of the X-Men, many alarms went off. Would this be X-Men: Tiny Tykes with a bunch of kids with powers, or would it even be worse, similar to the Hugh Jackman led Wolverine film? X-Men as a series and as a cash cow for Fox plays a difficult balance, as the universe is simply so grand, and finding the right story to tell within that world is often the issue the writers and creators of X-Men face, as opposed to Superman or Batman, where the main character and dichotomy is always in place.

            But besides the apparently badass Wolverine (those claws!), two characters really made the X-Men series the first great comic book film: Charles Xavier, aka the telepathic Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka the metal controller Magneto. As played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, watching these two play off each other like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X became the central core of the film’s first trilogy, with openly gay director Bryan Singer infusing the similarities of gay rights activism toward the comic book franchise, with the appropriate amount of entertaining ass kicking ass well.

            So X-Men: First Class, led by Layer Cake and Kick Ass director Mathew Vaughn, takes their origins as the film’s hook, throwing us back to the 1960s and the Cold War era. And while the film has a myriad of problems, Mr. Vaughn knows one thing works well, watching Charles and Erik together, and thus watching these men and their philosophies play off each other, is damn good fun. X-Men: First Class is a real mess of a film when its put together, but it’s better acted and stylistically unique compared to the other paint-by-the-numbers comic book films coming out this summer. Plus, when you have young thespians (not to mention man-candy) James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender leading this charge into nuclear annihilation, it can’t all be bad, right?

            The film starts off rather awkwardly with the childhoods of young Erik and Charles. Charles, growing up in a very nice manor, meets a young blue shapeshifter named Raven (aka Mystique), while the Jewish and Polish Erik spends time in a Nazi concentration camp. A really badly cast Kevin Bacon yells at him in German to discover his power, at the cost of the life of his mother, and thus the rage and philosophy of hate is born in him. Cut quickly to the 1960s where Charles, spouting the world “groovy” in order to better set the period, is finishing his PhD at Oxford while Raven, now played by Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence, plays his trusty sidekick. Erik has instead taken to globe trotting to find Mr. Bacon, now known a powerful mutant named Sebastian Shaw, who has his own small group of followers, including Man Men’s January Jones, literally playing an ice cold bitch as she does in the hit television series.

            Before even more plot lines can get going, Charles is recruited by the CIA to help put down Shaw, who is working with the Russians to bring nukes to Cuba. And thus after recruiting Erik, Beast, and a slew of other young mutants (though not the ones from the original trilogy), it’s off to stop the Cuban Missile Crisis (JFK is only seen on television, but we get glimpses into his war room designed to mimic that in Dr. Strangelove). And while Charles helps train the young mutants to use their powers for good, he and Erik discuss whether they can trust the human race, and especially the Americans, to protect them if they save the day.

            That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the myriad of plot and characters that appear in First Class, and the major problem with the film is its overstuffed nature. While working on a rushed production schedule (shooting began less than a year ago; most superhero films with heavy CGI shoot often two years before release), Mr. Vaughn had a lot to cram in—mutant action! 60s costume designs! References to the original trilogy!—and he manages to get it all in there. Unfortunately, the tone and pace of the film violently shifts from scene to scene. Mr. Vaughn made the same mistake in Kick Ass, turning it from a highly satirical joke on superheroes to an all-out celebration of the genre, betraying its initial premise. Mr. Vaughn doesn’t commit the same mortal sin, but he has trouble balancing comedy, drama, and action in his film. Each individual element works fine, but the film seems crammed and especially in its opening act, feels rushed to set everything up.

            None of that means much though with actors who can carry the material, especially Mr. McAvoy and Mr. Fassbender. Both have made names for themselves for more serious work, but they each bring their charm and drama, which elevates the material. Much has already been written about the young Mr. Fassbender, who has stolen each film he has been in —Hunger, Fish Tank, Jane Eyre—and the same goes here. With a cold heart and even colder eyes, Mr. Fasbender knows how to play a complete badass with an emotional core at his center. The other mutants–Ms. Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till—all fill into their roles nicely. The only problem seems to be the awfully miscast Mr. Bacon, a worthy actor who simply is not fit for over-the-top villain roles.

            As the film comes to its Russian-American big bomb finale off the shores of Havana, Mr. Vaughn finds his groove, and handles the action without overloading the CGI, though not relying on a hyper-continuity to dissociate us from the action. It’s one of the big highlights of the film is that while heavy on special effects, the film never bores you with it (an attack on the CIA headquarters middle of the film first is all about what you can’t see, and an effective use of cinematic sound).

            And thus, while a mess of a film, X-Men: First Class is intensely entertaining, though lacking in a cohesive strain. The film may not be as politically conscious as its predecessors (except for an awkward subplot that includes the cringe-worthy line “Mutant and Proud”), and it does push the series too far in setting up the trilogy, where more stories from the adventures of Charles and Erik would have been fun. But this is the summer flick we’ve come to expect, and the payoff is worthy of the price of admission, even if it’s just to stare at that man candy. 

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