Thursday, June 9, 2011

X-Men: First Class

There's always been something special about X-Men, something that distinguishes it from the countless comic book franchises, something personal, and while perhaps far from deep, a somewhat universal understanding of acceptance.  That the stories are tapped out for popcorn fun is most of the appeal, but there's always been a small nugget of substance in the tale of mutant superheros, that could easily resonate with anyone whose ever felt marginalized.  It's in that these mutants could be stand-ins for anybody.  It's with that nugget of substance that has always permeated the films as well, fairly well especially in the first two directed by Bryan Singer, the misguided third film directed by Brett Ratner, as well as the off-putting Wolverine stand alone are probably best forgotten, and so the latest iteration is for the most part a welcome return, despite indifference in marketing and a clear exploitation of the machine at work.  X-Men: First Class, a sequel, a prequel, a reboot, and whatever else starts at the very beginning, and while cluttered and full of endless beginnings and teases, two functions work splendidly: the introductions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, would be adversaries played with skillful precision and utmost appeal by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

The latest adventure, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake), a nifty stylist if less sturdier storyteller, is also the first, though the character chronology is somewhat wobbly.  Its the 1960s, and Charles (not yet Professor X) is a swinging Oxford graduate, more interested in using his special telepathic gifts for hitting on women than anything else.  And Erik (not yet Magneto) is a full of rage survivor of Nazi torment, hellbent on using his special powers for vengeance.  We meet a bunch of other soon-to-be mutant powerhouses, all still in pint-size form, plus the introduction of the confused interest from the government, plus there's a baddie in the form of Kevin Bacon.  There's a lot of beginnings and as the sort with films of this kind made at this point in Hollywood history, much of X-Men: First Class is exposition; there is a little bit of X-Men: Episode 1 syndrome, and at times it plays like a very intriguing television pilot.  The magic so to speak is in the relationship between Charles and Erik, both powerful and also both right, which makes them so intriguing.  McAvoy brings such quiet dignity to the role that pronounces the diplomacy in achieving acceptance, while Fassbender brings such intensity to his mindset that it's the rest of the world that should change.  The dueling agendas and opposing styles are the soul of the film.  These two are the flip side of the same coin, and whenever the somewhat messy First Class gives these two the stage, it works, and the machinations of comic book movie plotting and endless franchise juxtaposition are put aside.

The rest of the mutants sadly don't fare quite as well.  For every nice touch, like Jennifer Lawrence's sensitively layered, angst-ridden portrayal of Raven (soon to be Mystique), there's a bland and slightly vacuous one, like January Jones as Emma Frost, who seems to let the nifty special effects act for her (much like she does with the nicely draped dresses on Mad Men.)  It goes without saying that perhaps not everyone deserved an origin story of their own.  With so much carefully plotted exposition on hand, the threat of X-Men: First Class seems almost arbitrary, the principal bad guy is a megalomaniac with world control on his mind, and shares a back story with Erik, he's played with an oily grin by Kevin Bacon, and while intimidating, the film spends so much time with his character, Sebastian Shaw, on the back burner, it feels especially more and more like filler.  The best aspects of the X-Men films have always been the inner conflict anyway.  Which is not to say the action is at a loss here at all-- there's a neat underwater action sequence with Erik and a submarine (that provides a nice meet-cute moment for Erik and Charles), and even cooler missile attack later in the film, that does the rare thing in an action spectacle in that it also works as cathartic character moment.

There is however a feeling of a missed opportunity, one that applies to all the X-Men films in fact, in that something special and cosmic about the characters, one that First Class scarcely has room to include, aside from a few heavy handed lines of dialogue.  There's always been a light social commentary in the story, that these mutants are stand-ins for anyone every left behind, be it by age, race, gender, orientation, or what have you, but it's never quite been properly exploited.  One could remove one of the hundreds of beginnings and linger a bit at smaller moments like Mystique finding liberation in her blue skin, or perhaps meditate a bit longer on the burden of being special.  Of course this is a summer blockbuster, and not a character study art flick, of which I understand, but there's a certain sadness that a film, that in many ways feels and certainly looks carefully and thoughtfully made, there's still the nagging baggage of the Hollywood machine working full tilt. 

Every scene and every character entrance practically teases the premise of the next X-Men movie, just like every other big Hollywood film.  The problem is we are watching this movie.  It's in that tease and modern filmmaking template (one of which isn't the fault of director Vaughn nor six credited writers) that needs to be abandoned.  A film of nothing but beginnings can be promising, but never completed, nor transcendent.  And all the charms of X-Men: First Class, and there are many behind the two superb men gracefully filling out superhero roles including fun production values and rousing mutants-in-training vignettes, there's even time for a few nifty cameos, there's also a vacuum.  And in a modern movie age where everything must be started, and re-started and the longest running franchises require two-part conclusions, one must call uncle and perhaps pray for a day when a film is graced with the privilege to finally end.  B-

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