Friday, June 10, 2011

Ted's thoughts on X-Men: First Class

I liked it. I honestly, genuinely liked it. Which, to be fair, I was kind of expecting to, because the reviews I'd seen had been generally positive.

X-Men as a comic has always been dense with history—not just because it's been around for almost fifty years, but in the sense that many of its major characters have decades (sometimes centuries) of backstory, turning them into complex knots of motivations, desires, hatreds, beliefs, and so forth. Its two central poles, Magneto and Professor X, each have particularly rich histories, explaining how two men from very different backgrounds became the closest of friends, then the bitterest of enemies. At first, I thought the very last thing a film series that's already had four films, each packed with dozens of major characters, should do is delve even deeper into its own mythology—particularly after the last two of those films were such stinkers—but it ends up working out: they introduce essentially a whole new cast, injecting some new blood into the franchise, while explaining a bit more about those we already knew.

First Class also finally strikes just the right balance of sobriety and camp. If you've talked with me about superhero films for any length of time, I've probably given you my speech about how I hate the Spider-Man movies, mostly from the schlock factor. Sam Raimi is not an understated director; his movies are big and splashy, every emotion played out across the entire screen. I dislike that, in a comic book movie. I want the material to be fun, sure, but taking itself at least a little bit seriously. The first two X-Men films hit that perfect note for me: the plots were about stopping bad guys from doing something horrible to the world, yes, but with more pathos and emotional density than your standard action flick. They were big, and over-the-top in terms of plot, but the actual mood was more subdued, more character-driven. It's the same reason I love Terminator 2.

No movie is perfect, of course. I mentioned the "new blood" of the cast, but the focus is still on Magneto and Professor X. Their arc is great, and well-handled, but it does mean the other characters tend to be underdeveloped. Most of the young mutants get only a sentence or two to really show off their characters—not necessarily a bad thing in a splashy big-budget yet mythology-heavy movie like this, but it sure doesn't make me want to go out and see X-Men Origins: Banshee.

January Jones is godawful as an actress. I'm pretty sure the producers of Mad Men, when they were casting Betty Draper, were looking specifically for a woman who was almost totally emotionless because everything was being bottled up and tightly controlled. Unfortunately, they didn't realize that January Jones wasn't acting.

Some of the new mutant characters, both good guys and bad, are pretty odd choices. X-Men, by virtue of its subject matter, its longevity, and its premise, has an extremely large and diverse catalog of characters. So why, when you're looking for two Bad Mutants to round out Kevin Bacon's villainous crew, do you pick an extremely terrible and utterly despised character created by one of the most hated writers ever to take on the mutants, and a character so long-forgotten even I hadn't heard of him? Same goes for more than one of the First Class themselves (though I was delighted by the inclusion and Nicholas Hoult's portrayal of Hank McCoy).

At this point I'm going to start bringing in spoilers, so the rest of this scatterbrained review will be below a cut. Click through if you've seen the movie yourself, or if you just don't care.

- I joked before seeing the movie that it would be X-Men plus Mad Men, due to the '60s setting, but really it's X-Men plus James Bond. Kevin Bacon is almost the archetypal Bond villain. Overly complicated plan to rule the world? Check. Judicious use of nuclear power? Check. Love of secret rooms and other secret things? Very much check—not only does he have a secret submarine hidden in his yacht, his secret submarine has a secret room inside it. All he needed was the white cat to stroke.

- The film obviously draws bits and pieces from all throughout the franchise's nearly fifty years, but in particular it owes a lot to what Chris Claremont did in the '80s. There's the obvious ones—he created the Hellfire Club, Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, and deepened Magneto's background, particularly as it related to the Holocaust—but there's also the more subtle coloration that he gave the series, turning it from larger-than-life battles with crazy villains and trips into space towards slice-of-life stories, making more parallels between anti-mutant sentiments and racism. This isn't a bad thing, not at all: Claremont's work in the '80s is justly remembered as reinventing the franchise while keeping true to its roots. However, they did miss out on an opportunity to introduce yet another actress playing the part of Kitty Pryde.

- First Class has maybe one of my favorite montages I've ever seen, when Xavier and Magneto are training the new kids to use their powers. Not only does it have some nice visual splashiness, with multiple frames sliding around to emphasize or diminish various elements, but it's also just doing exactly what a montage should do: give us a condensed version of events we don't need to see the entirety of, in a short yet entertaining sequence.

- When Azazel attacks the CIA and kills the guards by teleporting in, grabbing them, teleporting several hundred feet up, and then dropping them, I naturally could only hear this song in my head.

- I mentioned above that some of the characters got short shrift, but here's a specific and spoilery example: Hank/Beast got to participate in that great love triangle with Mystique and Magneto, and also served to further Mystique's own theme of fitting in versus showing one's true self, but Hank's own arc got the shaft in the process. Mystique's character arc was nice and gradual and everything made sense, but Hank is sort of left hanging by the end, without any sense of closure. Disappointing.

- The nods to the rest of the franchise were generally good—Xavier's cracks about his hair, Shaw's helmet, and Hugh Jackman's wonderful cameo—but I'm of the school that less is often more, and they could've cut a few out.

- You know that other member of Shaw's crew I mentioned up above? Riptide? The guy who shot tornadoes out of his hands? I honestly can't remember if he had a single line in that movie at all. I'm pretty sure you could have just replaced him with a really big fan in every scene, and the impact to the movie would be nil.

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