Jun 13, 2011

[Movies] X-Men First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class (2011)We live in a weird world where there have been four different movies related to Marvel's X-Men comic book franchise with varying degrees of quality. Not even considering their lack of respect for comic book canon, the movies have only been generally enjoyable with the last two being near disasters for anyone with an actual brain.

This movie was a bit of a sleeper since it sort of popped out of nowhere with little fanfare. Plus the fanfare that initially came with it was pretty bad, if you remember the controversy behind some of its early release promotional posters. Given that this movie remains a Fox production (who are doing their best to hold onto the rights despite the Marvel movie full court press), it lives outside the rest of the Marvel movie universe and the tight little continuity that they've been building in preparation for the Avengers movie.

I guess that sort of fits, given how the X-Men have always been the poster children for every marginalized group and ethnic minority around. They've always been a walking metaphor of diversity and the challenge of oppression based on race or social class in one way or another. However this movie wasn't quite the social pariah it could have been - and that's generally a good thing.

X-Men: First Class is a 2011 superhero action-drama movie directed by Michael Vaughn. It is meant as both a loose prequel to the other X-Men movies while also being a potential reboot of the franchise as well.

We're first introduced to two very different boys. One is Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner), who is a prisoner in a German concentration camp in Poland together with his family. He accidentally demonstrates his latent mutant abilities and catches the interest of Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). He proceeds to experiment on young Erik in order to unleash the full potential of his powers. On the other side of the world, we have a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) who encounters the shape-changing Raven (Morgan Lily) in his kitchen. He offers her a new home and ultimately a new life with his absentee family.

Thus the two grow up into very different men who have walked different paths. Charles (James McAvoy) grows up to become an expert on human mutation and on a quest to find others like him in order to better understand them. He is more of the arrogant upper class type in his behaviors and assumptions, something that often irritates his "sister" Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Erik (Michael Fassbender) on the other hand roams the world trying to assassinate all those who caused him grief as a child.

Their paths eventually collide when Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and the members of his Hellfire Club put together a plan to manipulate the world powers to accelerate the potential for conflict in the world. Thus in the period building up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Charles and Erik find themselves on the same side as they deal with Shaw and his forces.

The movie has gotten some pretty rave reviews since its release, and I can respect and understand what has a lot of people liking the movie so much. Unlike previous X-Men movies, admittedly this one had an actual story that could hold a decent amount of water. While there were some odd kinks here and there (and especially in the final act), for the most part the story nicely wove together historical events with the fictional back story. As much as I generally enjoyed the movie, I still felt it had its share of issues here and there - but we'll get into that a little later.

The bulk of the acting chops definitely got invested in the lovely bromance between Professor X and Magneto. Seriously, I respect McAvoy as an actor and now I feel a little love for Fassbender as well. The two certainly have chemistry on screen - that is, in a completely platonic friends-fated-to-become-enemies kind of way. The story was truly built around these two actors and their efforts to demonstrate just how different each man is from the other. They're meant to be two sides of the same coin and thus fated to never be on the same side. Dare I say star-crossed lovers then? *insert geeky laughter here*

But once you leave the warm and fuzzy field generated by the animal magnetism (I pun) between the two leads, we end up with a whole lot of nothing. The X-babies were pretty much cardboard cutouts and not actual actors except maybe for the interaction between Jenifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult as Beast. While I sort of admire the poignant moments they managed to bring to the table, their entire sub-plot felt a little contrived and ultimately unnecessary.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 25: (L-R) Actors Zoe Kravit...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeThe rest of the mutants felt like whichever characters they could pull out of a hat. Need people who can fly? Let's have Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Angel (Zoë Kravitz). Token black guy? Then let's have Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Miscellaneous flunkies with no other meaningful contribution other than combat? Enter Azazel (Jason Fleming) and Riptide (Álex González). In this regard the movie suffered a lot of the problems of X-3, which brought in too many characters for far too little relevance overall.

Oh, and don't forget token eye-candy Havok (Lucas Till), who pretty much felt like a hula-hooping reject from I Am Number Four.

Of course my disdain for the supporting acting team is best personified by January Jones' horrible depiction of Emma Frost, the White Queen. Instead of the cunning, intelligent and manipulative seductress we've all come to know and love in the comics, we got a plastic doll walking around the various scenes. She had no emotional impact on me as a viewer nor did she seem all that relevant as an antagonist apart from her ability to use up 1/3 of the special effects budget in her pointless diamond form. I'm not even arguing on the level of a comic book purist here, I just don't get what she was supposed to bring to the movie! I've seen Vulcans who have displayed more emotion than she did.

But if you ignore everyone else and just focus on Erik and Charles, then you'll walk away with a pretty amazing story. Then again with the repeatedly blatant metaphor of the two playing chess all the time, you know that the movie is all about them and everyone else involved is nothing more than a pawn. Heck, while I respect Kevin Bacon's unique acting style and what it brought to the table here, he still didn't matter as much as the conflict between these two individuals. And in that regard, I suppose it's fair enough to say that the director succeeded in his attempts to deliver that message.

X-Men: First Class is definitely one of the better X-Men movies out there in terms of story. However it was not too different from the others in terms of how it mangled perfectly good characters in terms of how it presented them on screen. It still gets 4 stupid one-off demonstrations of everyone's mutant abilities out of a possible 5.

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