Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class

"The X Factor"
"Don't 'X,' Don't Tell"

Movies from Marvel Studios seem to be running the pattern of "Star Trek" movies (at least in my eyes), the "even"-numbered ones tend to be best, while the "odd"-numbered ones are a little clunky.* That's certainly the case with the "X-Men" franchise.  Bryan Singer's first film did a lot of heavy lifting adapting the comic to the screen, but there was a virulent strain of exposition, and some jostled positioning of the characters in what is essentially an action soap opera.  The best thing about it was its casting, but its big confrontation was poorly done.  X-II, also  directed by Singer, with all the introductions out of the way, concentrated on story and moved along smoothly with an emotional end-point that seemed to matter. Singer left to complicate the "Superman" movies, and left X-III in the hands of Brett Ratner, who produced a very expensive film that looked cheap, felt cheap and really screwed up the X-Men line-up.  Ratner was required to use an expensive cast which ate up a lot of the film's budget, and the results on-screen suffered, despite the audience familiarity of the stars.  There really didn't seem to be anywhere for another film to go, without some heavy gene-splicing of the cast.

So, here's the fourth "X-Men" Movie (we won't talk about X-Men Origins: Wolverinewe already have) X-Men: First Class, a sort of re-boot of the series, although keeping elements from the original films that everybody seems to like.  They could have easily made it an "X-Men Origins" film.  It starts where the first film began—at a concentration camp in Poland as Erik Lensherr (here Bill Milner, but he'll grow up to be Michael Fassbender**) watches helplessly (for the moment) as his parents are imprisoned in a concentration camp.***  The parallel story is of young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher, then James McAvoy ) who finds a metamorph in his kitchen (Morgan Lily, but she'll be played as a young adult by the ubiquitous Jennifer Lawrence), whom, recognizing a fellow mutant-traveller, he takes in as a sister.  Their lives progress and Lensherr, who has developed powers over metal, hunts down the Nazis (particularly Kevin Bacon) who killed his parents and tortured him, while Xavier attends Oxford with his "sister" Raven, achieving top honors—and why wouldn't he, as he can read minds and project thoughts.

What is nice about X-Men: First Class is it takes real-world events of the time that Lee and Kirby were creating the series in the early 1960's—in this case, the nuclear gamesmanship of 1962 when the U.S. planted missiles in Turkey, which was then challenged by the Russians planting nukes in Cuba, thus lighting the match for the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year, which came within a sub-crew's breath of a nuclear X-change between the two very real "super-powers."  Singer is credited with the story, and however counter-intuitive it might have been to place it there (and it does create a couple of continuity errors), it "works" and works gang-busters.  With Singer's story and the direction of Matthew Vaughn (getting stronger and stronger with each movie), it feels more like a 60's groovy spy story than your standard super-hero fare, and for once—save for a poignant moment in X-II—the consequences of the plot really seem to matter. 

Those familiar with the "X-Men" comics will know of "The Hellfire Club"**** and it turns out that organization of nefariousness and debauchery fits in well with the swinging '60's.  Led by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), with henchmen Azazel (Jason Flemyng), Riptide (Álex González) and Emma Frost (January Jones), they've pulled the mental strings of military puppets on both sides to set up the nuclear stand-off, and as Shaw absorbs energy, a nuclear holocaust wouldn't kill him, it would only make him stronger.  Banding together with the CIA, (uneasily, except for agent Moira McTaggert—Rose Byrne and another played by Oliver Platt), Xavier joins forces with Lensherr, in classic "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" style, and begin recruiting other mutants to form a secret society of operatives hiding in the shadows to do undercover work against the Hellfire Club.  Pretty soon, things become dire enough that they must come out of the cold and overtly take a stand, certainly taking their place among "the best and the brightest."

It's your classic "oppressed minority" story (something Lee and Kirby knew all too well when they were doing the comics—both were Jews, which was common among the pioneers of the creators of the superhero comics genre), but during the 60's it was a civil rights metaphor that only became more overt as the years went on.  Singer pitched his initial The X-Men concept as a "meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X," but it was more than that; Singer gave it a "hiding in plain sight" slant towards gay rights that involved not only opposition to the mutants but out-right hysteria (something the scenario buys into with the "recruitment" angle, long a charge of anti-gay paranoia). 

So, you have a superhero flick that acknowledges its comics roots by employing a style from the movies of its origin's time-frame, with a rather clear-eyed look at a real-life crisis (mutants weren't involved, although I've always had my suspicions about Robert McNamara), some nice performances, grand-standing direction, good action set-pieces, and a few nice surprises for fans of both the comics and the previous films.  X-Men: First Class manages to be more than the sum of its parts, certainly the best of the series and among the best of the genre, thanks to its scope and style and its own undefinable, uncanny "X"-factor.

X-Men: First Class is a nifty Matinee. "First Class," indeed.

The First "X-Men" comic (from 1963)

* Iron Man being an exception.
** Fassbender is terrific, playing contained rage and menace throughout, but when he lets go with the emotional histrionics, there is just enough control to it to make you worry what would happen if he "really" let go.

*** They even use Michael Kamen's music from the first film in the scene.

**** Although writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne site "A Touch of Brimstone"—a controversial episode of the British TV series "The Avengers" (and it's important to make that distinction with Marvel)—there's been a long history of actual Hellfire Clubs. 

No comments: