Wednesday, January 25, 2012
X-Men: First Class Movie Review
Superhero movies used to mercifully few and far between. Now they’re ubiquitous along with their various sequels, prequels and spinoffs. I understand why Hollywood studios continue to return to the same source material. It’s guaranteed box office receipts without having to do the heavy lifting of crafting new character. And basically the stories are ready-made clotheslines that have basic garments that always hang on them and the hired writers just have to decide on the occasional undergarment or accent to place alongside the old and familiar. So it is with X-Men: First Class, the fifth iteration of the X-Men franchise, this time going back to the origins of Professor Charles Xavier, Magneto née Erik Lenscherr, and the special school established by Charles to nurture and guide other mutants to learn to control their abilities.
In a prologue that recaps what we already saw in X-Men more than a decade ago, Erik is separated from his parents in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944 and in his ire bends the metal gates separating them. Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) observes and sees the great potential. Across the Atlantic, young Charles Xavier meets the young shape-shifting Raven (played later as an adult by Jennnifer Lawrence) and allows her to stay, keeping her as a kind of pet. Charles and Erik cross paths through a chance encounter in 1962 after Erik has tracked Schmidt, who is now known as Sebastian Shaw and looks miraculously young for his age. Because of some absurd attempt to include American government agencies in these movies (Transformers is infamously guilty of this sin) there is a CIA operation that encounters Shaw meeting with top U.S. Army Colonel in a Las Vegas club. Shaw, working with other mutants Azazel (Jason Flemyng), Riptide (Alex González) and the telepathic Emma Frost (January Jones), is planning something that will bring the world to a fiery end. MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), the CIA operative tracking them, discovers something that her superiors will predictably scoff at. Thankfully, the screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (who also directs) from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer finds reason for her to strip to her underwear during most of the Las Vegas sequence.
The convoluted plot takes us to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which this movie co-opts for its own purposes so that Shaw can convince the Soviets to place missiles in Cuba and push the two world powers into nuclear war. It will fall to Charles and Erik (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to stop it. They’ll have help, once again, from a gaggle of mutants collected in one of those montages that introduces a mélange of characters and showcasing their powers. In a redundancy, there’s one of those scenes when the characters show off their powers to the audience, I mean to each other. Then there’s the obligatory training montage in which Charles helps them all to hone and control their powers. If this is all feeling like a lot of exposition, introduction and list-making that’s because it is! Like just about all new iterations of comic book movies these days, X-Men: First Class is obviously the introduction to a new series, probably a trilogy.
In an aside above I mentioned the movie was directed by Matthew Vaughn. That mention and my deliberate use of the passive voice in the previous sentence should be a strong indication that it hardly matters who directed this piece of boilerplate action that is so generic it even counts Michael Ironside among its cast members. It’s competently made unlike so many other recent blockbuster action films, but it never rises above the level of pop entertainment even when the screenplay at least attempts to infuse the story with something topical and interesting. The first X-Men trilogy hinted at some philosophical musings with its allusions to the Holocaust through the singling out of mutants by some people in power as creatures to be tracked and feared.
More interesting than that theme are the diametrically opposed approaches to the issue represented by Xavier and Magneto. McAvoy and Fassbender are excellent and charismatic actors who bring heft and gravitas to roles originated by two giants of stage and screen. There are hints at and the beginnings of what could have been developed into some great conversations about whether to join the non-mutant humans or to oppose them outright. Their philosophical discussions are the best parts of the movie, but just a tease, like the one between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to open X2. Seeing the same characters as young men beginning their long and complicated antagonistic friendship is exciting and informs the earlier trilogy to some extent, but the meat of it gets lost in a plot that packs in way too much.
Still, I look forward to a possible next installment in this franchise if the same actors return and a more self-assured screenwriter is brought on board to flesh out the themes a bit more.