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Monday, June 06, 2011

Chris raves that X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is ALMOST the perfect comic book movie!

So we caught X-Men: First Class late on Saturday night and my synapses have had time to mull things over about this movie, which I absolutely loved...


I'm going to get this off my chest from the getgo because it bugs me more than anything else about this movie: the cameo appearance by Wolverine (played by an uncredited Hugh Jackman) is THE WORST thing that I've ever witnessed in a comic book motion picture of this caliber.

Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr are going around the world looking for mutants that Xavier has located using the first version of Cerebro. Their search brings them to a bar and Logan, who promptly drops the F-bomb on them before resuming his beer guzzlin' and cigar chompin'.

Look, I understand that the Comics Code Authority ain't what it used to be, and that Wolverine is supposed to be the biggest hardcase of them all, but still: this is an X-Men movie. And to include that line by Wolverine is immature and juvenile and... it's worse than that even. It's disrespectful of the source material of the X-Men comic books that have been published since the early Sixties. I hate this kind of thing, though I'm sure those responsible think themselves "cute" and "clever" for throwing it in there.

Hey guys, there is a time and a place for everything. Including harsh language that most parents still wouldn't want their kids to hear in what is being marketed as a blockbuster movie with bunches of toy tie-ins. It's worse than un-necessary. If you wanted to give Wolverine a fleeting appearance, he could have just been made to give Charles and Erik a surly "Scram, bub" and that would have made everyone happy.

But as it is, it should have been left on the cutting room floor or at least re-dubbed with something more innocuous...

...because it totally jerked me out of the illusion that what I was watching was what X-Men: First Class otherwise very much is: the X-Men movie that we always dreamed of seeing but thought we'd never actually get.

Now I enjoy the 2000 X-Men movie also. But in retrospect X-Men is very much from the "transitional" phase that filmmaking was in at that time: trying to figure out how to give all comic book cinematic adaptations the respect that at that point was the exception more than the rule (see Superman: The Movie for what I mean by this).

X-Men: First Class takes everything that we've learned over the past decade about how to properly project comic books onto the big screen, and then raises the bar big-time. It doesn't "diss" its roots, but it doesn't apologize for breaking free from its cage to become its own animal. And bearing that in mind, I absolutely must tip my hat to what director Matthew Vaughn and his crew have pulled off with this movie.

Now here's the thing where X-Men: First Class most impressed me: the story proper is set in 1962, building up to what history remembers as the Cuban Missile Crisis. But before we get there we see some circa World War II stuff that revisits young Erik Lehnsherr's internment in the concentration camp (first seen in X-Men), intercut with ten-year old Charles Xavier encountering the cold and hungry adolescent mutant Raven trying to steal food from the Xavier mansion. Xavier takes Raven in and promises to take care of her. Juxtaposed against that we witness "Dr. Schmidt" - AKA Sebastian Shaw - threatening to kill Erik's mother unless the boy can move a Nazi coin just as he bent the steel gates of the deathcamp.

Two young men, each set apart from humanity because of God or genetic chance. Both in their own way marked by the extremities of the species that mutation has divorced them from: Charles Xavier who is kind and shows kindness, while Erik Lehnsherr is given cruelty and made to realize that the only way for the world to make sense is to force it to.

I had misgivings about how X-Men: First Class was going to work with a setting now half a century removed from where we are today. But having seen it I think that Vaughn - along with co-writers Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman - did it right. They played up the very real uncertainty that was amok in the world of fifty years ago and cranked it up a dozen notches by throwing in the threat of mutants arising to supplant homo sapien. The result? A brilliant piece of revisionist history that plays out better than many docudramas I've seen of the period!

But that's just the background for the real story here: the biggest reason why I feel that X-Men: First Class is the superior film to 2000's X-Men: how this film portrays Professor Xavier and Magneto (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively). Whereas Patrick Stewart's take on Xavier was as an "elder statesman" type with a lifetime of wisdom to guide him and his charges, McAvoy's Xavier is very much a green lad bursting with virtue and ideas... but also lacking the self-discipline that Xavier comes to be renowned for. Heck, this young Xavier is a party animal who loves to chug beer and woo sexy women. But in time Xavier comes to understand that - you will excuse the blatant borrowing from another Marvel character - that with great power comes great responsibility. And it is with relishing delight that we watch Xavier come to grips with the task that fate has set before him.

But as much as I really applauded James McAvoy's take on Xavier, I am even wildly more enthralled by what Michael Fassbender did with Erik Lehnsherr: the man better known to the world as Magneto. THIS is the Magneto that I wanted to see in the 2000 movie. Ian McKellan, okay: he brought the necessary seniority and gravitas to the role. But McKellan's portrayal of Magneto lacked what in my mind is the character's most defining quality: his rage at the world of baseline humanity. And that kept us from ever seeing McKellan's Magneto turned on full-tilt against all mankind.

Not so with Fassbender's rendition of this classic villain. In this performance we get to see him become what longtime fans of the X-Men comics know what Magneto truly is: a force of nature as destructive as any hurricane or earthquake. Worse than a force of nature, even. Earthquakes and hurricanes aren't bent on genocide, after all...

It's the dynamic between Charles and Erik that is the soul of X-Men: First Class. But providing the heart is all the mutant-on-mutant action that we've come to expect and demand from a movie emblazoned with "X-"! Kevin Bacon is already one of the best supervillains I've seen in a movie, with his portrayal of Sebastian Shaw (another stroke of brilliance, if you ask me: Shaw has always been a very cool character and it's good to see him get some time in the cinematic limelight at last). January Jones (probably best known for her work on AMC's Mad Men) is hitting on all the right notes as Emma Frost. The rest of the cast is a terrific ensemble, particularly Rose Byrne as the young Moira McTaggert and Jennifer Lawrence as the older Raven/Mystique (look for a cameo by Rebecca Romijn as Mystique's appearance from the previous movies). But I'm especially impressed by Nicholas Hoult's portrayal of the young Dr. Henry "Hank" McCoy, AKA Beast. Hoult is spot-on the Hank McCoy that we've all come to know and love... except that not once does he ever say "By my stars and garters!"!! Color me disappointed. But here's hoping that this gets remedied in a follow-up movie. Hey, there'd better be another X-Men movie after this one: it took them eleven years to finally get Magneto's costume right! I don't want it to just be limited to a few seconds at the end of this movie.

I'm not gonna say anything else about it, 'cuz X-Men: First Class really is a movie you deserve going in to see fairly cold, as I did. I didn't know what to honestly expect and in fact, I was braced for a letdown. Happily, I could not have been more wrong. Apart from that one issue with some horridly inappropriate language, this is certainly the X-Men movie that I had no idea I was aching to see for all this time. Highly recommended!


Brian Fesperman said...

This is great to read! I've been holding great hopes for this movie, but with all "reboots" (yes, perhaps not REALLY a reboot, but in a way, it is, with a brand new cast), I had my doubts.
I planned on seeing it regardless of reviews, but now I can go in fully prepared to be entertained.

Thank you for easing my mind. :-)


Drew M said...

You know Marvel has not been a part of the Comic Code Authority for a long time now. Marvel now uses their own rating system. And most of their comics pretty much have a rating of T+, which is appropriate for 15 and up, or a rating of Parental Advisory, which both have stronger language, and slightly more graphic violence. Only a few comics have the A rating for All Ages. And Wolverine now pretty much stays between T+ and Parental Advisory.