Monday, June 6, 2011

Love: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: The Last Stand was one of the single most disappointing film experiences in my immediate memory.  In the wake of the surprisingly decent X-Men and the remarkably improved X2, the third film attempted to inflate itself into something bigger, better, full of new characters, and weighed down with a plot it couldn't sustain.  We lost Bryan Singer on that one, and we the geeks continue to lament to this very day.  Of course, things got considerably worse in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  In some spectacular effort to add insult to injury, Fox and Marvel decided to make a film in which logic was non-existent, the more interesting characters weren't present, and the effects weren't in keeping with the bulk of its comic book blockbuster contemporaries.  Wolverine was 100 minutes of Hugh Jackman screaming at the sky, so you could bet that when the first trickles of info and teasers for X-Men: First Class came around I didn't dare get my hopes up.  As time went on, though, I came around.  The X-Men's true leading mutants, Erik/Magneto and Charles/Professor X, have a rich origin story and director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) had successfully cast two competent actors (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy) to play them.  Assuming the two of them entered the film operating at at least 50% of their charm, the movie would make for entertaining summer fare.  Luckily, they're on top of it.  First Class is undoubtedly better than our last two dalliances with the X-Men.  It's a harmless summer blockbuster that's low on red-faced frustration even if it's too hollow and camp to really make good.  Fassbender and McAvoy offer steps in the right direction, but unfortunately, the rest of the film isn't playing at quite the same level.    
First Class follows, in part, the rise to power and the origins of the friction between Magneto and Professor X.   Our glimpses into their childhoods are intriguing, but heavily glossed over.  We get a confused instance in which young Charles is cooped up in his New York mansion with an English accent and no explanation as to how a boy stateside may have acquired such a thing or why Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is rooting around in his refrigerator in the first place.  The dialogue here is a complete muddled mess, and the child actors hired are nothing short of pathetic.  In our intro to Erik, things dig a little deeper.  Erik is a German Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp and at the mercy of study and experimentation in the hands of Nazi creep Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  We spend just enough time with both children to get a preview of their powers and then POOF, we're whisked away to a future in which Charles is a witty academic studying gene mutation, and Erik is a badass Nazi hunter out to avenge his mother's death.  When Charles teams up with the CIA to work on capturing Shaw, now a mutant gone rogue, they chance upon Erik and convince him to assist in heading up a new division of semi-public mutants.  After a funky little 1960's mutant recruit montage, the rest, as they say, is history.
The X-Men are a Marvel property still held by 20th Century Fox and not in the hands of Marvel Studios/Disney.  It shows.  Where Marvel Studios is gripping the reins firmly on the films leading into the Avengers, First Class feels like a film unclear as to its purpose.  It's a revenue generator, yes, but not one as polished as the Avengers films have been.  What's perhaps most notably absent in this film is a concern with cinematography and stylization.  The art directors may have put together a few lovely period sets, but the cameras don't quite know how to shoot them.  There's no ambiance here, no respect for the art that would be pumped into each frame if this were a comic book.  DC/Vertigo, in its partnership with Warner Bros, has cornered the market on effectively immersing the audience in a world that possesses properties different from our own.  Stylization to this end makes suspension of disbelief more plausible.  First Class offers camerawork so generic that poor CGI isn't even masked in shadow, lens flair, or upped contrast, but instead thrown directly into the sun naked and exposed for the shoddy, flawed material it is.  There were points at which I laughed at the implausibility of action I likely wouldn't have questioned if it had been staged in a world resembling, for example, the New York of Watchmen.  With each club scene or couch lounge, I couldn't stop myself from wishing with every fiber of my being that this film had been executed in a manner between the exacting aesthetic of A Single Man and the noir darkness of Hellboy.  In these worlds, Beast's fluffy blue body might be better incorporated into the scene, Azazel's red skin won't look so painted on, and maybe Riptide's tornado generating (wow they should have cut that) might actually manage to be nifty.  In Tom Ford lightning and exactly make-up, January Jones' Emma Frost might be able to wander about in a silly white bikini and be more like Ursula Andress than a Fembot prop.  Then again, maybe not, Jones is a pretty weak link in the film...she tends to mutter through dialogue she should enunciate and spit...
Ultimately, while First Class is an improvement and a good time on a Friday night, it should have focused on the origins of the men in charge and not the building of a useless team of teen crime fighters (Zoe Kravitz got a few eye rolls from this writer).  McAvoy brings levity to his role as Charles Xavier, but it's Fassbender who really gets dealt all the best hands.  I enjoy Ian McKellan's take on Magneto, though it's a lot of cheese and flash.  Fassbender's is a different animal, one who would rock it in a Nazi hunting exploitation film and one who actually manages to make a character in a silly helmet seem menacing.  And yes, as I mentioned to M. in a text convseration immediately after, he's also horribly attractive.  Yes, even when holding his hands out and making that constipated "imma magnet this submarine" face.  The great shame of it all is that he'll now be recognized more for this role than his star turns in Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, and Inglourious Basterds.  So, there's that.

Past this, while I love the X-Men in that way that clever, misfit kids tend to, I can't speak at length about the validity of this particular take on the origin story for the superfans out there.  That ball is in M.'s court. 

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