Wednesday, June 22, 2011

X-Men: First Class

A good Superhero movie for once?  Am I hallucinating?  Is this some kind of wild fever dream?  Did the utter and complete blandness of "Kung Fu Panda 2" break my soul so badly as to crush my limited grip on reality?

I guess its not much of a surprise that among the seemingly endless super hero movies this year, "X-Men" would represent the lone decent title.  "X-Men 1" and "X-Men 2" are actually not bad movies, this is universally agreed upon.  Of course, this is almost entirely thanks to Hugh Jackman's badass charisma as Wolverine, but even his talent couldn't save "X-Men 3" or "X-Men Origins".  The second one is probably the highest bar for this series - not a great movie, but certainly worth seeing.  You got the Patrick Stewart, you got the Ian McKellen, you got Mystique, and Nightcrawler, and Rogue - all great roles in a movie that just brought it all together.  What I really like about "X-Men" films in general is that they don't need to deal with all the Superhero movie cliches:  no origin stories, no one puts on a mask, and no rescuing a damsel in distress off a falling building.  Its about the characters primarily, not the Superhero persona, and it usually works.   Of course, "X-Men Origins" is probably the biggest mess of a movie I've ever seen - such a titantic failure that I could spend hours complaining about that one subject alone*.  And I have.  Trust me, I seriously have.

"X-Men First Class" is something of a do-over for "X-Men Origins" attempting to create a prequel to the first three movies that isn't a titanic lumbering ball of failure.  Instead of the side-characters being  zero-dimensional set pieces that exist only for empty fanservice ("wow, Blob is in this movie!"), actually have depth and meaning.  The film manages to get a large enough scale to give major characters arcs, complex relationships that have emotional depth.  "Thor" just had a girl giggling at him, the intricate dynamic between Magneto and Professor and Mystique makes for a far better movie.  It isn't a string of action scenes connected with a pathetic excuse for a plot - its a movie.  That's why "X-Men First Class" is a really good film.

The main plot of "X-Men First Class" involves a retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by adding mutants to the equation.  Apparantly all of it was actually a scheme by Evil Kevin Bacon who hoped to use WWIII to create a race of unstoppable mutants.  Also his superpower is to absorb energy, so he'll be pretty badass once the game is up.  Meanwhile, the first Mutants around the world are beginning to discover each other, and are eventually revealed to the world.  Its the 60s, so the movie's whole art style is a great flashback to the go-go girls and turtlenecks and awesome interior design of that decade.  "X-Men First Class" is what happens when a super hero movie has sex with a spy movie and somehow turns out to be a bizarre historically inacurrate remake of "Thirteen Days".  Heck, the War Room from "Dr. Strangelove" appears for no reason other than to be part of the celebration of the 60s obsession with Cold War James Bond-espionage genre.

"X-Men First Class" ultimately is the story of Magneto, when you get right down to it.  The opening scene of "X-Men 1" is either completely cut-and-pasted and reshown, or reshot.  Again we see young Magneto in the Concentration Camps first using his powers when his parents are taken away.  There are other characters in this film, and they have their own arcs, but Magneto is the real heart of this film.  He starts out a Nazi-hunting vigilante, trying to find Evil Kevin Bacon who murdered his mother to awaken his metal-controlling powers.  Then he joins with Professor X, builds a friendship**, and finally ends up a Super Villain out for mutant domination.  And at no point during this movie do you feel that Magneto has fallen out of character and turned to cartoony villainy like he inevitably does in the cartoons and the third movie.  Professor X just kinda starts out as a wise dude, with a little bit of Austen Powers-style 60s swinger lines, and ends just as wise, he doesn't really have all that much to learn here.  Its Magneto's film.  You'd think by the end you'd have turned against him since he's basically a super villain now, but the movie really keeps you sympathetic with Magneto.  The humans do prove to the enemy of Mutants, just like he predicts.  Personally I've always sided with Magneto in these movies because we Jews represent but never more so in this movie where it seems that the director himself might even be on Magneto's side.

As for the other side characters, Mystique is probably the single most important other character.  Previously she was just a blue ninja, existing purely for sex appeal. She begins as - of all things - Professor X's adopted sister.  There's some aborted sexual tension between the two, but really the character she's most drawn to is Beast.  Beast and Mystique both have mutations that turn them into monster-like creatures, (though Beast as first only has ugly feet) so they're natural companions.  But Beast wants to cure his mutation and appear normal, Mystique wants to be herself and not be forced to wear a mask.  Ultimately Mystique chooses Magneto because he has a blue-skin fetish, it works better.  And he likes her exhibitionism.

As for the other characters, they go from largely forgettable to completely pointless.  The other mutants in this movie seem to exist only to have more powers and give comic book fans something to see, and to create battles.  The final confrontation between the heroes and Evil Kevin Bacon isn't really all that much of a fight, so they add more characters to give some action, even though its largely unnecessary.  There's some Ron Weasly-kid that has screaming powers, the Mormon doctor from "House" can evolve or something, the Devil is personally working for Kevin Bacon and has Nightcrawler's teleport powers, this list goes on.  There's even a human secret agent who is along for the ride because... I don't know.  She doesn't do anything, I think they just wanted somebody else to wear the X-Men suits.  Among the background characters is Michael Ironside, being cool as ever, and the guy who played the President in "Red Alert II".  I loved that.  "Ohmygod,theguywhoplayedthepresidentin'RedAlert2'isinthismovie!Thatissocool!!!"

The casting is all around great - with on notable exception.  Both Michael Fassbender and James McAvory manage to play the roles once chaired by the mighty Patrick Stewart and the thunderous Ian McKellen with their own strength and personal take on the roles.  They look and sound nothing like the veteran actors they're replacing, yet I never once missed them.  The new Professor X and the new Magneto have their own great qualities.  Fassbender is pretty much an unknown, and is a great find casting-wise.  I didn't much care for new Mystique, I felt Rebecca Romijn did a better job despite having nothing to work with.  (Romijn does show up for a split second cameo though.)  But the one person I know is just loving being on set is Kevin Bacon.  He's decked out in classic 60s garb, strutting through a Bond Villain set, relishing every line.  Sadly he doesn't quite get to use his mutant powers in their full force, but still, he's pretty good in this movie.

However, the one person who is not good in this movie is January Jones as Emma Frost.  I would call her a bad actress, but that would be admitting that whatever she is doing in this movie is acting at all.  Its like she's doing her nails.  Nobody could be more bored.  What stagehand found this barely-breathing prop and left her on set?  I am getting nothing from this woman.  As a villain, she's bland, non-threatening and utterly without charisma.  As a character in a movie, she is a living speed bump, only working at all as Kevin Bacon's eye-candy to promote his Pimp status.  No wonder she's kick out of the plot halfway through and replaced with a hotter chick with wings.  I don't miss her at all.  Plus her diamond superpowers makes me yearn for "Speed Grapher" where some lady had the same power.

But really, if I must complain about something, its the effects.  Some of these special effects are really quite bad when you get right down to it.  Usually I'm the last person who ever complains if the 600 million dollar explosion is a little grainy, but here, it looks weird.  The make-up on Baby Mystique has a seem line so obvious around the chest that its essentially the modern-day version of seeing a zipper on the alien's back in "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" episodes.  I swear to god, I can see hair plugs in the Baby Mystique costume.  Beast looks awful in his hairy form, this being an effect that worked perfectly fine on Kelsey Grammar back in "X-Men 3".  He looks like Teen Wolf, only with his lips oddly out of sync.  Emma Frost's diamond form is a pretty effect:  until they tried to have her talk.  The face doesn't move right at all, bringing back flashbacks of CG Jeff Bridges from "Tron Legacy".  But then, the last big effect - Magneto lifting a submarine out of the water - works perfectly.

But effects are not a movie's entire visual style.  Personally, I found that "X-Men: First Class" was full of its own great sexy 60s style.  From the go-go girls dressed in pink see-through nightgowns to the classic style that is sideburns, turtlenecks, and a suit jacket, this movie is beautifully designed.   I loved the fashion.  I know that's the gayest single thing I've said on this blog (and there is no lack of gay comments I've made here), but I have to admit it, the fashion was excellent.  And the movie was well-shot too.  The most striking scene for me was a very early moment where Kevin Bacon confronts little Magneto.  At first the interrogation seems to be happening in a well-appointed Nazi office.  Then the camera turns right, and you see that the office is just a facade - they're actually in a laboratory filled with torture equipment.  That was some true cinematic brilliance.

The best part of this movie still is the lone line by Hugh Jackman, who has the greatest cameo in the history of cameos.  As good as this movie is, he was the only part that actually made me laugh beyond Kevin Bacon's pimpitude.  So sadly, I can't call this a great movie - merely a good one.  Worth a see, definitely better than I ever thought it would.  And the Nazi Hunting subplot is getting my mouth watering for "Captain America", a super hero movie based entirely around a battle against Ze Germans.  Hitler, America is coming for you.

* I can't resist, I have to complain about this movie.  Its that bad, even like three years later.  The plot is so rushed as to be almost laughable.  The first fifteen minutes of this movie has enough character introductions and history that it should have lasted an hour - at least.  Wolverine has no screentime with his rival/brother, no screentime with his wife.  I think he has more lines with the friendly farm couple that takes him in than the two most important emotional figures in his life.  All that character-building and plotting is rushed so that Wolverine can fight Fat Bastard and so Ryan Renolds can get an awful cameo.  Just an awful movie.  This is how you don't do it.

** Though they never said it in any of the movies, I am 100% certain that Xavier and Magneto have had sex.  And though they didn't show it in this movie, it happened, I swear to God.  Just look at they way they look at each other in the Lincoln Monument scene.  There's some love there, they've done the deed.


  1. Never fret, the next super hero movie is going to be about some Indian super hero, you think there would be one, but he will try to avenge his fallen tribe members in about 2 hours of film.

  2. I classify this movie as a "Tragic Bromance".

  3. ah finally a good super hero film no dark knight but eh. it was going to be called orgins magneto but eh again. oh by the way thanks for the matrix idea and i moved in america for my vacation and im loveving it here.

  4. Anon: Finally? What about Thor? That was a pretty good movie.

  5. @anon
    ymmv of course
    right marvel citizens suck every mutant that saves them lets throw rocks at them super heroes that save the world countlessly from fucking planet eaters no credit check
    a super villain blows up a school congrats mutants super heroes are to blame
    super villain save themeselves by saving the world they are treated as a saviors and give them more power than the president and they gave it the fucking marvel joker lol what if we had super heroes hehe