Friday, June 10, 2011

In Theaters: X-Men: First Class

Poster and IMPAwards link

X-Men: First Class doesn’t feel like the obvious direction for the franchise to go in. It's not just a prequel, but one set in the 1960s, when the comic was first published, and working with the original “Children of the Atom” concept that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pioneered. Of course, it’s not a lot like the original comics, or the more recent retro series of the same name for that matter, but rather its own odd take on the origins of the world’s strangest superheroes. It’s actually a fairly charming approach, and a pretty good movie too, managing to feel more like an actual story than the cash grab of the last two X-entries. There are a number of rough patches, and it’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s a step back in the right direction.

The film follows Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a brilliant student and telepath who is interested in finding other mutants like him. As a child he befriends a young runaway named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who has the ability to change her shape, and she lives with him almost like a sister. When CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) witnesses a group of mutants led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) coercing a Pentagon official into placing US missiles in Turkey, she enlists the help of Xavier to help hunt down Shaw and his cohorts (including the shapely telepath Emma Frost, played by January Jones.) In the process Xavier rescues Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant with magnetic powers who, as a child, saw his mother killed by Shaw when both were held in a concentration camp, and has been working as a superpowered Nazi hunter ever since. Erik and Charles both see the need for mutants to unite in a world that hates and fears them, and begin recruiting others with unusual powers to stop Shaw before he can manipulate the Cuban Missile Crisis into a full-blown nuclear exchange.

It takes a while for the various plot strands to come together, but fortunately the various mutants’ individual stories are pretty interesting in and of themselves. Xavier is both charming and a bit sleazy, the price of being able to manipulate people with your mind, and to some extent the story of the film is the story of him being forced into something resembling emotional maturity by an increasingly unpleasant situation. At the same time, Erik is being forced into maturity by having to confront something larger than his own vendetta (as valid as it is, and as satisfying as it is to see him kill ex-Nazis hiding in Argentina.) Raven (later to be known as Mystique) is also put on a fascinating and conflicted journey, one that calls into question her relationship with Xavier. And then there’s the villain’s story, more conventional to be sure, but not without its fun parts, notably Shaw’s groovy Hellfire Club.

With all these stories and characters flying around the movie can’t help but be a little sloppy. Some of the dialogue doesn’t work, Oliver Platt’s character is never given an actual name, and almost inevitably the team’s sole black member (Edi Gathegi as Darwin, who has a genuinely interesting “adaptive” power) dies in the second act. It’s kind of messy in the way it grabs various characters and names from the comic book mythos, and while I generally believe that filmmakers have no obligation to be especially faithful to their source material, Moira’s lack of Scottishness bugged me. Some of the characters get shorted in the shuffle, and this seems to bear traces of having been a few different X-projects smashed together when it appeared that no single one could carry a picture on its own.

So why does this work for me? For one thing, it doesn’t feel like a soulless moneymaking engine. Some of the story choices- such as the 1960s setting, the direct use of the Cuban missile crisis as a key plot point (even bringing in the US’ own nuclear expansion into Turkey), and the lack of “marquee value” heroes on the main team- give the impression that this was a weird little twist on the franchise that the various participants genuinely believed in. It has an offbeat sense of humor and a nice layering of the character’s social anxieties on top of the apocalyptic stuff. For the most part it feels like it wants to do right by its characters- not necessarily from a comics purist perspective, but from the perspective of telling their story.

A lot of this may fall on the actors as well. McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence have the most heavy lifting to do, and they come off quite well- for people who have seen the previous X-Men adventures, there’s a sense that for the first time we’re really getting to learn about Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique. The kids playing the actual “first class” are enjoyable too, and Bacon as Sebastian Shaw is clearly having a little too much fun. Byrne continues to impress, the changes to Moira notwithstanding, and there are some amusing cameos both by established superhero types and by good actors in general.

This is a film that probably could have been better if given more time to cook. It takes on the burden of a franchise reinventing itself to stay relevant and is unsteady because of it. But even in a genre as played through as comic book superheroics, this feels fresh. It’s a good spectacle, it’s willing to be a little quirky, and no single problem it has is big enough to hobble the whole thing. It charges along in spite of everything, and does so with a considerable amount of charm. The Marvel movies this summer are 2 for 2 so far, and I can only hope they manage the hat trick.

Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont, etc. etc. etc.
Story by Sheldon Turner and Brian Singer
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Grade: B

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