Saturday, June 4, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Sporadically exciting, but schizophrenic in tone, this 1960s-set prequel deals with the origin of Professor Xavier's "School for the Gifted" amidst the national and social turmoils of the era. After brief introductions to their childhood, we follow telepath Charles Xavier and human magnet Erik Lensherr as their parallel quests (Xavier's for acceptance, Lensherr's for revenge) finally intersect with their mutual adversary, the energy-absorbing Sebastian Shaw (who mercilessly killed Erik's mother in front of him to provoke his mutant abilities). Along with his companions, Mystique (the shape shifter), Dr. Moira McTaggart (the token normal human), and, later, the child versions of Havoc (with his energy blasts), Angel (flying and spitting venomous loogies), and Banshee (screaming so piercingly that it can actually propel him off the ground), Charles attempts to swiftly integrate mutants into society with a carefully constructed, CIA-funded program. However, as anyone who has ever seen or read anything X-Men related, humans are sucky and intolerant, so Charles' valiant efforts are doomed to be in vain for at least another 4 sequels. At the same time, he struggles to quell the bubbling angsts of his Holocaust-survivor partner, Erik, and his adopted sister, the insecure, blue-scaled Mystique.

The latter element, with Mystique first eschewing, then embracing her striking blue features, is the weaker factor of the film; her civil rights-lite squabbles and physical insecurities take up a lot of screen time, all with the audience knowing, full-well, what kind of gleefully empowered badass the character ends up as (easily understood, seeing how actress Jennifer Lawrence was just in the running for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars). The other premature X-Men, Charles included, suffer from thin exposition, aside from the requisite introductions to their powers and, ultimately, their alleigance to either X or Magneto. The tie-ins with JFK and the Cuban Missle Crisis, so prominent in the marketing, is only a small factor late in the film, a "wouldn't-it-be-cool?" afterthought just designed to incorporate the X-Men into something from real-life. Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt, both quite talented actors, are wasted as "sympathetic" humans who, predictably, have absolutely nothing to do once the energy rays break out.

If half of the film is a younger-demo-skewing hodgepodge of powers, montages, and rudimentary conflict, the half of the film that does end up working is Magneto's story. 20th Century Fox had been developing a stand-alone Magneto prequel for years before they eventually greenlit First Class, and, when watching the film, it seems that they have literally copy-pasted scenes from that proposed movie into this one; the early scenes of Magneto being forced to learn his powers by Nazis, then, later, hunting them down, one by one, and killing them with the supposed knowledge that HE'S THE WORLD'S ONLY MUTANT have far more weight, subtext, and tension than any of the stuff with Charles and his band (probably due to a greater number of thorough script meetings). Along with the clearly thought out, Inglourious Basterds-esque revenge plotline, the other thing that makes Magneto's arc the most interesting aspect of the film is the performance by Michael Fassbender. Had this film been the monster hit it could've been, Fassbender would have been the monster breakout to come with it, for his European good looks mask a consistently devious, yet self-assured demeanor that makes for incredibly well-rounded, watchable villains like Erik Lensherr; compared to James McAvoy's bland, been-there-done-that Charles Xavier, he, like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan before him, shows that this material really lends itself to good, nuanced ACTING. The majority of the extended cast is wasted and glossed over, save for Kevin Bacon and January Jones, who, as two of the villains, perfectly maintain the over-the-top, yet weighty comic-book tone of the film. Matthew Vaughn, probably given this script late into pre-production, has injected the more traditional, "young X-Men" stuff with a color-rich, stylized palette, matching the slower, "look-what-I-can-do!" dialogue scenes with the more grandiose, action-y stuff through sheer visual technique; the faults of the film are certainly not due to Vaughn's abilities as a director. However, the script remains achingly dull and obvious, with the Magneto-centric scenes coming off the best due to the obvious care and time spent developing them, and the central "good guy" trio of McAvoy, Lawrence, and Byrne do absolutely nothing to liven up the telegraphed, patchworked plotline of the formation of Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted.

Slightly Recommended to fans of the series, the comics, or of Michael Fassbender. Matthew Vaughn jumped on this in the aftermath of Kick-Ass, which was a surprising international hit; this falls more into the realm of Stardust, with Vaughn's obviously deft visual touch overcoming a somewhat half-assed script, while failing to reach the overall impact of that film.

P.S. A montage about halfway through, with X and Magneto scouring the globe for mutants (including a wonderful utterance of the film's lone F-word), is terribly exciting in a stand-alone sort of way, and is the closest this film gets to truly incorporating the 1960s aesthetic into the X-Men visual vernacular. It will be on youtube.

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