Sunday, June 5, 2011

DAMN Good Movies -- X-MEN: FIRST CLASS


Yep, it's time once again for another of my infamous movie takes, this time concentrating my efforts on the film X-Men: First Class, based on the classic Marvel Comics characters.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then in the name of Smilin' Stan Lee, please stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...To me, my X-Men...

Like most comics fans my age (God help you all), I've been an X-Men fan since way back in the day with the definitive creative team, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne.  (Technically though, my first exposure to the team was buying a copy of X-Men (vol.1) #95, which featured the death of Thunderbird, but I didn't start buying the book regularly until years later with Uncanny X-Men #139, when Kitty Pryde first joined the team as Sprite.)  I've read an insane amount of X-Men stories since then, most of them disappointingly mediocre, but a solid number crafted by the finest talents in comics.

In 2000, director Bryan Singer gave the X-Men a welcome breath of fresh air with the first X-Men movie, the cleverly titled X-MenStripping away decades of comics continuity baggage like characters from the future and numerous resurrections/variations of Jean Grey, Singer's film gave us a streamlined, accessible X-Men team that proved popular enough that resulted in two sequels and a spinoff origin film for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.  However, the poor handling of the second sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand, by director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn left the series with little room to move forward.  In stereotypical Hollywood thinking, that automatically means one thing...Time for a reboot.

Enter Matthew Vaughn, director of the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' Stardust and the adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.'s Kick-AssTogether with screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman, Vaughn opted to take the X-Men back to the very beginning in prequel form, similar to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and yes, George Lucas' Star Wars prequelsUnlike Lucas, however, Vaughn wasn't content to simply make a movie that ticks off a checklist of items that explains how characters and events came into being.  No, Vaughn actually focused on their characters themselves and wrapped them in a stylish Mad Men era setting of the 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis.

It was a bold move, taking the X-Men out of the early 21st Century and dropping them in the 1960s, but doing so helped to distinguish his film from Singer's as well as giving Young Professor X and Young Magneto a more interesting playground.  The Sixties also provide a more sensible setting for concepts like the Hellfire Club, dropping them into the Rat Pack's Las Vegas, although the comics fan part of me would've liked to have seen the Hellfire Club in their traditional Manhattan setting wearing their 18th Century period costumes.  And, of course, you can't do a big budget Sixties adventure without working in some James Bond espionage themes, right down to secret submarines that emerge from hidden compartments aboard expensive yachts and dining booths that swivel around 180 degrees to reveal a secret lair on the other side.

Lifting the origin of Magneto straight from the opening moments of X-Men, Vaughn is intent on adhering closely to Singer's variation of X-Men continuity.  This, of course, means that the original X-Men from the comics -- Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel and Iceman -- are unable to be in play because they aren't old enough to be members in 1962.  So what happens is that a new group of original X-Men has to be cobbled mostly together from previously unfilmed characters, comprising Mystique (revealed as Professor Xavier's childhood friend and assistant), a pre-blue and furry Beast, Havok, Banshee, Darwin and Angel Salvadore.  And yes, adherence to the comics timeline is obviously minimal, seeing that Havok is now unable to be Cyclops' younger brother, barring some wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey explanation.  I admit to being initally thrown after learning of the characters involved, but Vaughn pulls these disparate characters together in a way I would never have thought possible.

At times, it almost feels as though there are two films mashed together -- an X-Men film set in the 1960s and a Quentin Tarantino revenge film starring Magneto.  That's not a bad thing, mind you, because it gives Magneto considerable depth to his character arc and enhances his interaction with Charles Xavier.  It does, however, clash with some scenes, such as the one with the young, almost X-Men sitting around in their swinging CIA headquarters pad goofing around and saying "Hey, let's give ourselves codenames!"  Ultimately though, the film settles on being the X-Men movie it was destined to be and launches into a strong final act.  Final allegiances are made, affecting the relationships among key characters that will eventually pay off in the original trilogy of films.

The stellar performances are what really sells this film, however, and they highlight the real reason why this prequel works and Lucas' prequels didn't for the most part.  Vaughn tells his story through the characters, letting them dictate how the story should proceed and not trying to force them into specific plot points.  And as you might expect, there were specific things that stood out and here's some of what I observed...

PROFESSOR X/CHARLES XAVIER -- Arguably the strongest actor, James McAvoy nails the role of Professor X, confidently allowing you to forget about Patrick Stewart's performances while giving you glimpses of how similar the two actors can be.  The younger Xavier gets to cut loose and have more fun than his older self does, and it's almost a crime to see him become paralyzed at the end even though it has to be done.

MAGNETO/ERIK LENSHERR -- Michael Fassbender is certainly right up there as well.  He brings considerable intensity to Magneto, taking him on his quest for revenge and showing him succumb to the Dark Side of the X-Force.  Interestingly, Fassbender is less of a mimic than McAvoy, but you can still see his Magneto one day becomng the Ian McKellen version.  And if nothing else, he can certainly rock the classic red and purple Magneto helmet.

SEBASTIAN SHAW -- I don't know why this is, but you always seem to forget that Kevin Bacon can really act until you're watching one of this movies.  He throws himself nicely into the role of Shaw here, chewing the scenery without hamming it up and giving the film the right amount of menace.  And yes, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game just became even easier with this movie.

MYSTIQUE/RAVEN DARKHOLME -- Jennifer Lawrence brings a considerable amount of sympathy to the role of Mystique.  With her Girl Next Door looks, Lawrence runs the whole range of pining best friend to lonely teenager to independent mutant crusader.  Her character arc is as central to film as Professor X and Magneto's and makes you look at the earlier films in an entirely different light.

BEAST/HANK MCCOY -- As the younger version of Kelsey Grammer's Beast, Nicholas Hoult is the brilliant but self-hating misfit who just wants to be normal.  This gives Beast a sweet but all-too-brief romance with Mystique but Hoult is lost underneath his unflattering Beast makeup and costume.

BANSHEE/SEAN CASSIDY -- I was initially concerned that Caleb Landry Jones' take on Banshee would end up being relegated comic relief, but thankfully that wasn't the case.  Banshee isn't a key character, but he does get some fun action scenes and his aerial dogfight with Angel Salvadore is a particular highlight on the big screen.

HAVOK/ALEX SUMMERS -- Lucas Till comes off a bit like the jock from The Breakfast Club, but has a few notable scenes as he attempts to control his energy blasts.  If he appears in a second prequel, I hope they bring in Polaris as his romantic interest.

MOIRA MACTAGGERT -- I had no problem whatsoever with Rose Byrne as Moira, but I had a big problem with the way Moira was written in this film.  The character's Scottish ethnicity and genetic scientist background is completely rewritten as a generic CIA field agent given the task of overseeing Xavier's group of gifted youngsters.  Moira's traditional romance with Charles Xavier is mostly lost as well, only hinted at the end with a Christopher Reeve Superman-style hypnotic kiss.  And I won't even get into how creepy her comics romance with Banshee could be in this continuity.

EMMA FROST -- Probably the most miscast of the roles, January Jones obviously looks the part as Emma Frost, but unfortunately comes off as bland and empty as her Betty Draper character on Mad Men.  Emma should ooze sexual and intellectual confidence and Jones, despite her alliterative comic book name, showed little of that.

AZAZEL -- As Nightcrawler's biological father, Jason Flemyng gets little in the way of dialogue, but shows how truly dangerous an assassin with teleportation can be.  I imagine the inclusion of this character was an attempt to play up the hellfire in Hellfire Club and he definitely works here, even though you get no indication (yet) of a connection to Nightcrawler beyond the powers and appearance. 

DARWIN/ARMANDO MUNOZ -- Edi Gathegi gets a rather thankless role as Darwin, as the character's half-Latino background is dumped in favor of an African-American cab driver.  You would think that in the 1960s, someone would make an inappropriate comment on the character's race, but this is X-Men, after all, so perhaps race isn't as important in a world with blue and red mutants.

ANGEL SALVADORE -- Drawn from the recent Grant Morrison New X-Men era, Zoe Kravitz gets to play Angel with a stripper background, which means she's the likely one to flip right back to Team Hellfire Club.  She's there to give the X-Men someone else to fight, nothing more.

RIPTIDE/JANOS QUESTED -- Alex Gonzalez has an even more thankless role as Riptide, another one-note character without dialogue designed as X-Men villain fodder.  He does, however, look far more stylish in a three-piece suit than his comics version does in a costume, and his powers are visually impressive enough to make you wonder why Marvel doesn't use him more.

VARIOUS CAMEOS -- Several fun cameos for comics fans and TV geeks abound, ranging from Rebecca Romijn appearing as an older, adult form of Mystique, Twin Peaks' Ray Wise as the Secretary of State, Michael Ironside as a U.S. Naval captain, and Doctor Who's own Vincent Van Gogh, Tony Curran, as a CIA agent taken out by Azazel.  However, there's one other really special cameo...

WOLVERINE/JAMES "LOGAN" HOWLETT CAMEO -- In a brief, hilarious scene, Hugh Jackman returns as Wolverine long enough to tell Professor X and Magneto to go fuck themselves during their recruitment drive.  Brilliant.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Not so obligatory, apparently.  No sign of "The Man" anywhere, I'm sad to report.

All in all, X-Men: The Last Stand definitely holds its own with the first two X-Men films and successfully relaunches the characters for at least another two films should the box office in a crowded summer season prove justifiable enough.  Bringing in some replacement team members like Polaris or perhaps Thunderbird and Sunfire is a must, though, and they might want to use an additional villain.  Hmmm...Since Moira MacTaggert has been introduced, how about Proteus



And for those who might be wondering, here's the updated and revised list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. Watchmen (2009)
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. Spider-Man (2002)
6. Batman Begins (2005)
7. Iron Man (2008)
8. X-Men: First Class (2011)
9. X2: X-Men United (2003)
10. X-Men (2000)
11. Thor (2011)
12. Batman (1989)
13. Superman II (1981)
14. Iron Man 2 (2010)
15. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
16. Hellboy (2004)
17. Superman Returns (2006)
18. Sin City (2005)
19. 300 (2007)
20. The Crow (1994)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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