Monday, August 15, 2011

X-Men: First Class

2011, Matthew Vaughn

X-Men: First Class wasn't nearly as stylized as I had anticipated. I was expecting a heavily 1960's spy film-influenced aesthetic, and while there was some of that, it wasn't as all-consuming as I had hoped. That was perhaps my greatest disappointment in the film. I knew January Jones would make a terrible Emma Frost, and as the character I know from the comics she was, indeed, a terrible fit, but as a generic, bouffant-laden right-hand-gal who really didn't have much to say or contribute to the film, she was fine, and the crystalline effect when she changed form was quite well done.

All told, the entire film was quite well done. Despite the disappointment mentioned above (which is actually what I was looking forward to the most) I actually wound up liking this latest installment in the X-Men franchise even more than I expected, and more than any other in the series.

Vaughn, whose previous films were the adaptations of the comic books Kick-Ass and Stardust, is doubtlessly a comic book enthusiast with a genuine interest in making a cinematic representation of a comic book on screen, and this film is the closest I've seen in years to achieving that in the superhero milieu, even if it's not yet perfected. Vaughn does it without any real overt or stylistic references to the act of reading a comic, like the "panel transitions" in Ang Lee's Hulk (which I loved) or the slow-motion action framing of Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Vaughn, unlike the rest of this year's crop of comics-to-film filmmakers, actually has a passion for the genre he's working in and it shows.

For starters, First Class is an origin movie, but unlike other such films it's not the origins of any of the characters in question, but the origins of the group. At this point Charles Xavier, Eric Lehnsherr, and Raven/Mystique have had three movies that have explored their characters, their motivations, their differences, so there was little need to rehash conversations already had here. Instead we're provided insight into how they came to be friends and what drove them apart. Throughout the film we learn the origins of all sorts of geeky things, like where the Blackbird came from, how Xavier got crippled, where the school for gifted youngsters came from, where Magneto got his helmet and more, but they're not the focus of the film, and for the most part they're not winking asides, but actually a necessary part of the story.

And there is a story, which draws even further upon the comics but also wraps it into the real world. This film introduces us to Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his Hellfire Club, which is a literal club in this case, and his plans for global annihilation followed by mutant rule. Shaw is playing both the USSR and the USA against one another in an attempt to drive them into nuclear war to carry through his plan, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Shaw's plan is silly, over-the-top and pitch perfect comic-book villainy. It's a big enough threat to warrant a movie, and just tangible enough, tied into the real-world scenario to add some weight to it, dampening the silliness.

It's also Shaw that draws everyone else together. Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) is transitioned into a CIA agent for the film, and is hotly investigating the Hellfire Club. When she discovers its mutant secret, she enlists Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), fresh from receiving his doctorate as a geneticist, to help her figure out exactly what's going on. On the CIA's first raid of Shaw's yacht, Shaw gets away, but they encounter Eric (Michael Fassbender) who has been searching years for Shaw (who has ties to his past in a concentration camp), facets of a Nazi-hunting espionage fable played out nicely by Vaughn and company in the film's early goings. The two big mutants together, through some solid comic-book style script work they find more mutants to hopefully help control their abilities, including Darwin, Havok, Angel, Beast, and Banshee.

There's a solidly executed b-story, a budding comic-book style romance between Beast and Mystique, the latter just looking for acceptance, the former convinced he will never find it. There's a kinship that they share, hiding their mutant deformities, and how their relationship ultimately plays out is deliciously tragic, and far less melodramatic than it could have been.

Fassbender is the breakout star of the movie, trying on a number of different languages and in general being a total badass while also having a softer side. At the same time, you can totally see how he ages into the determined and malicious Ian McKellen. McAvoy's Professor X is charming, playful, very intelligent with fits of wisdom, though showing his inexperience and limitations often. His journey to Patrick Stewart is less obvious, but not impossible. Jennifer Laurence is no Rebecca Romijn in that she can really, really act. She's not as long and lean and sultry, but she's not supposed to be. Here, Mystique is bashful, self-conscious and full of yearning and fear. Her youthful, sibling-like friendship with Charles Xavier came as a surprise but played out very nicely with an exceptional payoff. Romijn was never given much opportunity to develop Mystique (she was pretty much the Emma Frost of the X-Men trilogy, add a hint of sex with nothing much to say) so Laurence had a pretty clean slate to work with and did a great job. I would love to write "Bacon's Shaw was pure ham" but Bacon gave the character a simmering nefariousness without resorting to Nic Cage theatrics. Everything about Shaw was subtlety, except when he needed to make an impact and Bacon held it all in nicely.

Now, it's not perfect, not by any stretch. The whole Shaw-busting-in-to-recruit-the-recruits was well executed but poorly conceived. Angel's character became pointless and Darwin's death (and lack of subsequent resurrection) equally so. As well, the speech Shaw gives in this scene is virtually repeated by Magneto at the end. It would have been far more interesting had Angel stayed hesitantly on the side of the good guys and logically switching sides with Magneto at the end. But I can get past that.

This installment generally ties into the rest of the X-Men film series' continuity nicely without being overwhelming and overt about it. There may still be more than a few questions raised by how certain things conflict with the comic book folklore, but then that's to be expected from at this point. Yet, its detachment from certain characters and actors, allowed the Magneto, Mystique and Professor X to grow in different hands and in a different time period that gives the series a fresh start. As well, I should point out that this film takes place during at time before the first issue of the X-Men was ever published gives the movie an even more unique place in X-Men lore.

I would love more other-era X-Men films. A 70's blacksploitation-style or late-70's disco era with Dazzler would just be dy-no-mite.