Monday, October 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Starring Everyone.

Hey, remember back when I said that KICK-ASS was a depressing and vapid attempt to disguise violent machismo as depth? And remember I said, in passing, that despite its distasteful subject matter it was admittedly kinetic and funny, and that yeah, probably LAYER CAKE director Matthew Vaughn had a much better action movie in him somewhere?

Well, it turns out that he did, and in fact not only was it in him, it has already in the world. I had forgotten that after being booted from X-MEN 3 (which ultimately went to the workaday Brett Ratner and became universally despised among nerds despite the fact that its a reasonably solid if somewhat uneven entry into the franchise) Vaughn finally got his chance to return to the world of the X-Men with the staggeringly unnecessary prequel X-MEN: FIRST CLASS which chronicles the period of time when Charles “Professor X” Xavier (formerly Patrick Stewart as an old guy, now James McAvoy) first got together with his fellow mutants and especially future frenemy Eric “Magneto” Lensherr (formerly Ian McKellen and formerly inexplicably spelled “Lehnsherr” in all the comics and in every previous movie, what's up with that?) and started that X-Men school that we've all heard so much about.

FIRST CLASS in an unnecessary movie in nearly every aspect. It takes a few marginally popular supporting characters in the X-Men universe, recasts them as their younger selves, and tells the story of what happened to them when they first met, most of the emotional beats of which were already covered extensively in the first 3 films (and possibly to some extent the first WOLVERINE prequel, which I haven't seen). So, you pretty much know everything substantial that will happen in this story, as well as the fact that all the characters you're familiar with will survive and move on to the sequels. Hell, you even know who's going to get injured and who's going to turn evil and what their philosophies will be. And you even know why since they explicitly discuss it in at least two other films. It doesn't matter much to me if the turning point for Magneto was a submarine battle with Kevin Bacon or a lightsaber fight on a lava planet, so what possible reason could there be to go see a movie which merely fills in the details for events which are already fairly concretely outlined for us?

To answer this question, I'd like you to go out and watch RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Go on, I'll wait.

(elevator music)

There, see? That's a movie with even less reason to exist, a pre-boot to a terrible remake of a series which was already pretty well done to death when the first five (count em!) films came out back in 1856 or whatever. It's exactly the sort of film concept which is made into a big summer film when some Hollywood accountant gets a survey back which identifies name recognition of some brand among the 18-30 male demographic as being over 70%. Someone crunches the numbers and figures if they advertise enough, they should be able to scratch together a 70 million opening weekend and then easily return on the investment through merchandising. Advertising partnerships will do the rest and grow the brand sufficiently to restart the franchise. Oh yeah, and someone will probably have to write a script or something and make a movie. It doesn't really matter what.

There's no reason for anyone to seriously try and make something good when the whole thrust of the project seems to regard the film itself as an irritating but necessary minor component. But for whatever reason, probably boredom or crystal meth, someone decided what the heck, since we're making it anyway why not actually make it fun?

And, to everyone's confusion and general bafflement, they did. Apparently nobody was paying enough attention to get in there and stop them, so they just made something silly and fun and cinematic and entertaining.

At the time, I attributed it to the fact that the weird black star thing from THE FIFTH ELEMENT was focusing on ruining our government and had briefly been diverted from ruining our action cinema, but now I think old Matthew Vaughn maybe outta get a little credit for starting this trend of unnecessarily fun needless franchise movies, because FIRST CLASS has the same philosophy of trying to actually entertain you despite the fact that there's no particular reason for it to want to.

Even though it's produced by Brian Singer (who directed the first two but was blacklisted from the series for awhile for daring to make a SUPERMAN movie which was better than we all deserved and hence widely disdained), the feel is pretty different than any of the series so far. It's less serious, more goofy, more awkward, more colorful and energetic take on the material, which makes sense because it takes place back when everyone involved was a goofy, awkward teenager or young adult. Believe it or not, this actually works in the film's favor by adding a whiff of youthful enthusiasm into the proceedings.

There are a number of things this film has going for it, which make it unexpectedly enjoyable. Among them:

+Its early-60s milieu. Unlike the slick, grim, modern X-Men trilogy, this one has a lot more fun with colorful sets, bright locations, and just a hint of camp courtesy of its sixties-era conventions. The film wisely (and with unexpected discipline) avoids making a bunch of corny Austin Powers jokes about the era, but there's something very fun about watching Kevin Bacon lounge in the belly of a Submarine decked out in what could be a set and wardrobe straight out of a Roger Moore Bond film. The film is set in the 60s out of necessity, but Vaughn makes it work beautifully for the tone of the film. The slightly silly, colorful, but strait-faced production meshes nicely with the inherent silliness of the superhero stuff's internal reality. Its a nice reminder that people take the X-MEN films seriously not because they tried to make everything gritty and realistic, but simply because the films treat the characters and situations seriously, as though they matter and are worth caring about. What a fuckin' concept.

Oh Kevin, draw me like one of your mutant girls.

+An inexplicably awesome cast. Kevin Bacon probably chooses these ensemble films these days just to make the Six Degrees game a little easier, but pretty much everyone in this thing is better than we deserve so it works out. Bacon himself is masterfully hateable as an ex-Nazi megalomaniac charming enough to lament that he looks like a jackass wearing a big purple helmet. But you've also got WINTER'S BONE alum Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique. Lots of people thought she doesn't add much weight to the character, but I think she does a fantastic job of portraying a Mystique who's warmer, younger, more na├»ve, and probably a bit shallow. It makes a nice contrast to older Mystique's ultra-confident duplicitous calculations, so while Lawrence's performance is less show-offy than you might think from an Oscar-nominee, it works nicely in the story and makes her feel vulnerable to exactly the kind of charismatic villainy we'll eventually see. We've also got Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, James Remar (wait, really? I don't think I ever noticed him), Jason Flemyng (somehow making an impression despite being a completely unrecognizable and virtually silent minor character), Rose Byrne, January Jones (don't get the love for her, but here she is), ABOUT A BOY's Nicholas Hoult, perennial bearded Russian Rade Sherbedgia, and fucking Michael Ironside (mysteriously credited a “M. Ironside”).

Also James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

Put Vincent D'onofrio and Kurtwood Smith in there somewhere and you'd pretty much have every awesome minor actor still working in pictures today. Most of them play thankless minor roles, but having great actors play minor roles is a time-honored and effective way to goose up a film's overall greatness. See WAYNE'S WORLD 2 for more on this philosophy.

So Bacon is great, of course, but it's Michael Fassbender who really brings this one to the next level. People have been hyping him for awhile but this is the first thing I've seen him in where he's really blown me away and made me go, “OK, I get it.” His young Magneto is a charisma monster, and I don't know if he just arrived on set first and picked all the good lines and scenes for himself or what, but somehow he ended up with them. He sells the character's inner torment with a sincerity which, like the movie itself, was certainly not necessary or expected but gives the film surprising emotional weight even when the script doesn't back him up.

Oddly, McAvoy (as a young Charles Xavier) is the only one who seems to be coasting here. The script doesn't really do him any favors by making him a bland, motivation-free plot device, but unlike Fassbender he doesn't fill in where the script leaves off. The only character traits I could really ascribe to him were “preachy” and “British.” This presents somewhat of a problem since the film's final conflict is between Xavier and Magneto, and you're supposed to end up thinking Magneto has gone too far. But if you or any reasonable person had to pick a friend to side with, you'd choose Magneto since he's so much cooler and more relateable (in fact, the villainous details seem kind of shoehorned in and don't really seem to fit with his character). Sure, we know Charles can hold his liquor and looks like he'd be fun at parties, but Fassbender looks like he's well on his way to being that Most Interesting Man in the World who drinks moderately priced mid-range Mexican beer (man, that is interesting!).

Admit it, you'd drink whatever beer he told you to.

So it's a bit unbalanced, but McAvoy does fine, the casting is excellent, and the actors craft fun (if not always exactly deep) characters across the board. Which brings us to the final thing the film has going for it:

+ Who needs action? For a superhero film, there's virtually no action or fighting at all throughout most of the run time. Magneto has one awesome scene of introduction which is so badass I won't spoil it for you, but otherwise most of the film is about the characters meeting and setting things up, hardly an action sequence or major setpiece to be found. If there is a genius to the thing, though, it's that it knows it doesn't have to be blowing shit up all the time to entertain you. It has such a great cast and such a light, fun touch that its most pleasurable experiences are often its least expensive. Watching the montage of Charles and Magneto recruiting other mutants and experiencing the rush of excitement all parties feel as they reveal to each other that they're part of the same club is just a pure pleasure in a way movies used to be before “fun” was synonymous with “sensory overload.” Interesting, likeable characters having fun and bouncing off each other, nary an explosion in sight. I mean, I'd trade the whole ludicrous battleship desert island nuclear showdown for a couple more scenes of the newly recruited X-Men hanging out and playing with their powers. There's a genuine earnest joy there, something which has been missing from superhero movies so long I almost hadn't even realized how much I missed it. It pervades the whole film and buoys it even when the script sags a bit.

Ok so the script, written by Vaughn and a few others of little note* is pretty weak. I can't deny that. It has a few clever ideas but some (the mutant “cure”) we've seen before and others (good guy turns evil) are sort of half-formed and don't really add up in any satisfying way. Like KICK-ASS, the script keeps telling you that it's saying something deep but then never really says it. If the script were even a little better, I might be able to join these nerds who are calling this one a classic. Sorry, can't follow you there, kids. But a film this packed with good stuff can sustain itself on goodwill alone. Even when the film can't quite find the words to say it, there's a certain truth that the actors bring to their roles, and an even greater sense of dorky fun.

Look, it has Kevin Bacon lounging in a burgundy velour suit in the belly of a submarine decked out with shag carpeting, a blond in a two-piece white corset, and a guy who people seem too polite to point out looks exactly like the devil**. If that ain't enough to convince you to see the thing, I dunno, man, maybe watch THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS or something.

* Although STARDUST co-writer Jane Goldman is about the hottest writer I've ever seen, especially now that she's filled out a little. Damn, cast her next time! Oooh, and she had her own paranormal series, “Jane Goldman Investigates.” This might be love.

**So, apparently this guy actually is literally the devil (according to his wikipedia page, anyway). His bio sounds like it would make a good Ken Russel film, though, and I think I speak for all mankind when I say I'd like to see a 160 million dollar spin-off about Jason Flemyng in devil makeup going around, “mating with women who had strange appearances.”

 Seeking: Ladies of strange appearance, ages 18+ who are up for no-strings attached kinda thing.

1 comment:

  1. This was, I think, the only superhero movie I bothered to go see this year, and it was a pretty good one.

    I think (?) Vern might of mentioned this, but the biggest missed opportunity was, given the era it was set it, in didn't do more to try to tie into the social/racial/sexual revolutions of the 60's. Given the X-Men series often acting as a metaphor for civil rights and what not, it's a little surprising. In fact, the sexual and racial mores of the film are (unintentionally, no doubt) a little dubious. Most notably, there are two minorities on the new X-Men team, and one is the first to die, and the other turns into a villain. Way to embrace the spirit of the 60s, guys.

    Not that I require this movie to make a statement or anything, it just seems like such an obvious missed opportunity.