Saturday, June 4, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

The year is 1962, and a world weaned off of several decades of conflict is once again reaching a divisive brink, as the United States and the U.S.S.R. spiral towards irrevocable conflict As The Age Of The Atom has dawned, humanity must now grapple with a newfound possibility of nuclear holocaust with casualties in the realm of the incalculable, and no likely winner. And yet beneath this cacophony of tension, another rift is brewing that could shatter the very reality so many seem to be fighting over.

Young professor-to-be, Charles Xavier(James McAvoy), just finishing college and ready to hopefully expand awareness of gifted human beings by way of genetic mutation is called upon to assist the CIA who have run afoul of a nuclear plot of unimaginable proportion. A plot spearheaded by rogue scientist, Sebastian Shaw(Kevin Bacon) who also harbors the revelation that he himself is a powerful mutant, and in the company of several "enabled" accomplices. It is within the belief of CIA agent Moira MacTaggert(Rose Byrne) that in order to thwart Shaw's plans, it is time to look toward similar individuals with their respective abilities. Little do they know that somewhere else in the world, a young & vengeful Erik Lensherr(Michael Fassbender) is on a neverending quest to track down and destroy every last remnant of the Nazi contingent he feels responsible for his painful past during the Holocaust, and is zeroing in on Shaw who in fact was once known as Dr. Schmidt, the man directly responsible for murdering his mother before his very eyes when he was a child, and unable to display his frightening magnetic power on call. With the open and empathic Charles, and the broken & angry Erik's ideologies on a collision course, the greatest conflict has yet to begin.

As a general rule, I tend to intensely dislike the very idea of a prequel as it implies not only a bit of laziness on the part of studios, incapable of looking anywhere but backward as a means to cannibalize profits from a well-worn property, but also almost always fall on the lazy side by nudging at how cool it is by referencing instead of operating freely as its own film. One doesn't even have to think very hard to see why this has become something of a bad word in certain geek circles. But there have been the occasional third base hit that not only stays true to the franchise that inspired it, but offered exciting new avenues for the franchise to breathe, and I'm happy to report that Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class fits hand in glove with Bryan Singer's first two installments in what can be considered to be one of the most universal of superhero properties.

So this is where I reiterate that enthusiasm notwishstanding, I am by no means a superhero comics fan. But the most exciting possibilities of comics that hit home with me are one with a certain tether to our reality. Ones that reveal often undermentioned truths, and perhaps explore these themes in a visceral, entertaining manner. Which in many ways is why the X-Men franchise has been one of so much potential since it's early days in the latter 60s. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the mythology of X-Men was one of the medium's master strokes implicit of the time in which it was made. And when Bryan Singer took to bat with the first film in 1999, it was clear that audiences were at long last ready to embrace the civil rights angle, as well as the CG-laden spectacle one would only expect. But what noone expected, was the attempt to ground the film in a wholly new realm of verisimilitude that has remained a powerful influence in adaptations of comics since. Even if Stephen Norrington's BLADE was a precursor of comic-to-film-ad-nauseum to come, it was Singer's rough and ready event that changed the outlook of the comic book movie forever. And then Singer & Co. took it a huge step further with X2, and it was as if the prayers of not only comic book fans, but of genre geeks of all backgrounds were answered. The bar was raised, and it seemed like the craft could only fly higher....

And then came X-Men 3...And then Origins...It was as if Fox never seemed to have a clue what they had on their hands, and decided to single-handedly destroy what goodwill had been gathered by those first two entries.

But then, it also stands to reason that one of the biggest strengths Singer brought to the first two films is not only great thematic filmmaking, but sharp use of ensemble, which is in no way an easy task for a two-hour film filled with massive special effects. The films grasped the debate between both mutant factions, as well as the human reaction to the conflict which only serves to raise the stakes against Charles, and his school of mutants in their quest for greater acceptance in the world. The writing and directing need to perform a tricky balancing act in order for us to see both Charles & Erik's points of view without reducing either's validity, and Singer's films struck that balance nicely.

Based on a story by Sheldon Turner & Bryan Singer, and a script handled by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Vaughn, one could only be wary by so many hands, and yet an overwhelming amount of it works seamlessly as the film adopts an almost Bondian sense of globetrotting, mixed with a classy early 1960s edge ala the legendary secret agent.

Of the many effective touches in the film, one that hits home as an admirer of the early films is the relationship between Charles & Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a shapeshifter who's unusual appearance serves as a counterpoint to his ability to read minds and use telepathy, which cannot be outwardly seen by average people. There is a lingering sense of melancholy throughout this as those familiar know of her future role in the mythos, and knowing what they go through here only makes the first two films that much more painful. One would think that Charles' and Erik's relationship would be enough to fuel an entire film, and the fact that this is in here as well, only makes the inevitable that much more emotionally pummeling. From the initial meetings between Charles and Raven, and onto the first time he runs across Erik, it is clear that he is longing to be something of a den mother to many who feel so alienated by some uncontrollable twist of fate. There is a sincerity to McAvoy's performance that serves as a potent setup for things to come, and do they come in torrents.

As Shaw's plans with the Hellfire Club begin to advance aggressively, the CIA ( with the help of McTaggart & an open and curious Man In Black, played by Oliver Platt) open up the ability for Charles & Erik to seek out fresh & skilled mutant recruits to help stop what eventually becomes distorted history in Cuba. We are introduced to a number of young exceptionals such as Angel(Zoë Kravitz), Darwin(Edi Gathegi), Banshee(Caleb Landry Jones), Havok(Lucas Till ) , along with the already invaluable help of youth prodigy, Hank McCoy(played with awkward aplomb by Nicholas Hoult), who's own personal arc could easily have been the focal point of an entire story. And yet the overarching plot featuring our heroic few against those who would destroy us, and possibly impact historical events is handled well enough to carry several subplots that cement the classically universal themes of the original comics and films.

Which leads us to the flourishes that Vaughn's film brings to the table. As the central theme has always been one reminiscent of not only the civil rights movement of the era (which again, only makes the film's possibilities stronger), but of any great struggle for equality, the film brings its own unique stamps to the desk by going for some of the more obvious, but not as often stated struggles of the past; particularly of women in a so-called "man's world", and seething memories of enslavement. The era itself being something of a central character in the film is perhaps its masterstroke.

Division, and unification are at the core of the piece which is clearly reiterated by way of Charles as advice to Erik. The yearning for a place between rage & serenity is a difficult place to find, and this is where Erik's ultimate choice lies in view of everything he sees around him.
 In no way is this oversold throughout the film, but it is there just enough to make for some sly commentary on the era, as well as a means to bolster what comes to be Erik's ultimate calling in the film. Again, the man who would be the infamous Magneto may be seeing the other side of the argument from Xavier, but he is not merely driven by impulsive emotion. It is easy to see why his influence could be so strong, and in the hands of Fassbender, this works far better than the films first half almost implies. Vaughn's film lets us know where he stands from the beginning, and never lets us forget that even as he is elated to know that there are others out there like him, he still refuses to accept a notion of humanity ever accepting them despite all they're doing to potentially save the world. Seeing the 1960s through Erik Lensherr's eyes, division seems inevitable, with only a just purging being the reasonable option.

And what of Mr. Sebastian Shaw & Hellfire? Looking at Shaw, we can see quite well the man who would shape Erik's life by painting the vision of a charismatic, debonair monster in disguise. By making him possibly a greater ideological threat than what would come later can only conjure up horrible thoughts of what caused this man to envision an improved world with mutation reigning supreme. And yet the unexpected casting of Kevin Bacon is terrific. There is a mixture of cool-handed intelligence, Bond villain-esque humor, and ultimately simmering rage to his performance that helps us even better understand the origins of what would be the Brotherhood. Along with him are Emma Frost(January Jones), a telepath capable of deflecting another's ability to read by way of forming crystalline skin. Azazel(Jason Flemyng): a teleporter, and Riptide(Álex González), an air manipulator make up the remainder of Shaw's A-team, and are formidable as a Brotherhood prototype. With perhaps a hint of progressiveness just a stone's throw away, it feels reasonable to accept certain late additions to the team, even if it moves too quickly to feel truly earned.

Which is perhaps one of my only real issues with the film as a whole. Vaughn, fresh off of his no-studio daredevil stunt via last year's Kick-Ass is a director who embraces the general, and can move incredibly fast from plot point to plot point, which in many ways succeeds. But there are times when the whole could likely have been improved by letting the viewer breathe in the world for a little extra time. Two good opportunities lie with the early days between Charles and Erik. It is efficiently told for sure, but at times it feels as if there is one more good philosophical conversation missing between the two. And this is made up for by a great moment in the second half which is almost marred by an overbearing score by Henry Jackman.(I'll get back to that in a tic)And this also happens after the death of a character. There is a need for our young recruits to truly clock the stakes at hand, and it all passes by too quickly. Again, this is minor, but to have gone any faster would have undermined the film's already loaded storyline, and thereby hurting the inevitable payoff, which inevitably works in a lovely fashion. Vaughn and company deftly dodge that, and offer a solid thesis on how we came to be in the universe we have seen in the more standout films of the franchise to date, finally making this a successful trilogy of sorts. (the feeling of forgetting that X3 ever happened, and that this fits well as part ONE, makes for a doubly satisfying experience.)

I just wish the score were differently handled. As serviceable and fun the Jackman music is, it is far too modern rock score for the era we are witnessing, and a tale like this is classical in nature, which calls for something closer to John Ottman's music for X2. A minor quibble perhaps, but there it is. A film with this much class, and thoughfulness deserves nothing less.

And yet despite these minor gripes, there is much to love about X-Men: First Class. It is a welcome return to the emotional center of what makes this cast of characters so endearing, and relatable. And it serves as a smart & sleek counter part to other above par comic book adaptations. It proves that one doesn't have to be grim & overbearing, or drunk on familiarity to sell a successful action fantasy. X-Men is a mythos that deserves nothing less than careful exploration, and can offer new dimensions far into the future as so many of us at one time or another have felt ostracized for being "different". It is a testament to something inherently human, which is why comics themselves can be important in responsible, intelligent hands. And yes, it can kick royal ass when necessary.

Which is why Vaughn's film is an unmitigated success; it both compliments the best elements of Singer's films, and infuses this backstory with both a sense of adventure and impending tragedy that could easily have been another studio cash-grab. From script to cast, this is an unexpected return to form for a franchise long in the muck due to one bureaucratic miscalculation or another. It is also telling that Vaughn had been one of the directors attached to X3 before having to drop. It feels very much like he has had a great X-Men film in him brewing for a long time. And perhaps that extra few years was a necessary  for this particular brewing period in order to make this happen. And if that's the case, it's time to break into the tap, because X-Men is back, and possibly better than ever.

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