Tuesday, June 14, 2011

X-Men: First Class, or "Rupert Grint's agent is on the phone... And he's angry."

X-Men: First Class

When I think of Professor X and Magneto, like a lot of people, I cannot help but picture old sci-fi/fantasy standbys Sir Patrick Stewart (Dune, Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings, The Keep). Both are Shakespearian actors of some renown, though it’s hard not to come out of the UK as a successful actor without making one’s mark playing something from the Bard, and both are geekdom darlings with plenty of memes to their names.

That said… I do NOT hate McAvoy and Fassbender.

Granted, it’s hard to see Professor X walking around (which can be forgiven easily in prequel context) and with a full head of hair (much, MUCH harder to forgive, even as they lampshade it with dialogue) or a Magneto without a silver mane no matter what his age, both actors give very believable performances as the arrogant, but well meaning, young power players they could have been before becoming the diametrically opposed frenemies they are in comics of yore.

And the same can be said for several of their costars.

Jennifer Lawrence (who seems to be popping up everywhere of late, as fresh-faced Hollywood ingĂ©nue’s tend to do) does a pretty decent job as a young Mystique, free to be a sympathetic character for the first time in… well, ever… instead of showing up as the doppelganger to be feared and mistrusted, always lurking in plain sight as an agent provocateur. The Raven of First Class is very much a cute, but tormented young woman, struggling with a world that hates her. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Lawrence holds the entire spotlight in her YA reader debut of The Hunger Games (a Battle Royale homage/rip if ever I read one).

Additionally, Kevin Bacon almost steals the show as Hellfire Club director Sebastian Shaw (who seems to be channeling a little Mr. Sinister here as well) in his attempts to instigate World War Three during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Granted, it’s hard not to see Kevin as the self-referential super-fan from DirecTV commercials, crossing his fingers in hilarious hope, but after the initial shock of his role NOT being a cameo wore off, Bacon’s Shaw quickly became the villain you love to hate… especially as the precise, clipped German rolls off his tongue during Erik’s prologue scene.

But, then we have a performance flop.

January Jones, while strikingly beautiful, is barely anything but eye candy here, even as she expresses her character’s powers to protect Shaw from Xavier’s mental probing. Yes, it’s great to see her prancing about in pristine white lingerie for half the movie, but when her best scene is just her unspoken distaste for Shaw’s pre-liberation misogyny and the rest is just wooden poses meant to accentuate her curves while maintaining a PG-13 rating… well, sorry, Madame Jones, but you could’ve been utilized much more effectively.

With the performances out of the way, I suppose it’s time to move on to the story. The basic premise is fairly simplistic. Sebastian Shaw’s Hellfire Club is playing both sides of the Cold War to accelerate the timetable of Skynet’s Judgement Day. Wait, forget that. He’s playing both sides to get the Fallout series started. No… that’s not it either. Oo, oo, oo! I got it… Dr. Stangelove! No. Though the iconic Stranglove war room does make does make an appearance. In actuality, Shaw’s mad plan to start nuclear war to decimate the human population is an attempt to put Homo Superior on top as the dominant species… with him, of course, as its leader. Oh megalomania, what villain can’t you motivate in to mass murder?

If you’ve failed to hear the sarcasm in my description, don’t worry… the hate I hint at doesn’t really exist for me because, really, the basic premise doesn’t matter. It’s just a staple conflict with the familiar X-themes of racism, rectifying social injustice, etc., and set in the 60’s because it’s convenient.

The real meat of the story are the little microcosms of 60’s society that fill the void left by a lack of depth. Vegas as a sinner’s paradise for the military-industrial complex’s elite, Khrushchev’s Russia (complete with goose-stepping posturing)… there was sterling attention paid to sets and props, from the smoky briefing rooms to the life vests of both the American and Russian navies.

While they don’t talk about it much, they do lampshade the issue of non-mutant racism by making Magneto an avenging Nazi-hunter tracking down Shaw for his genetic experiments and making the sole mention of slavery (albeit mutant slavery) as portion of Shaw’s conversion speech hang on the only African-American in the whitewashed room.

Then there’s the MadMen-esque CIA and National Security Council boards, full of gritty 50’s/60’s stereotypes who were quick to denounce the jet setting mutants and their human ally, a young agent Moira McTaggart back to the steno pool or prison where they belong.

Some of the best detail work came in the form of the cameos… with performances by solid science fiction and fantasy actors such as Michael Ironside (Total Recall), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) and Rade Serbedzija (The Saint)… not to mention my personal favorites Oliver Platt (Lake Placid, 2012), James Remar (Dexter) and good ole Hugh Jackman (Swordfish… *snicker*). Marvel Studios has certainly brought it’s A-game in the past few years attracting excellent b-movie talent to round out small roles.

The only real problem I have with the movie (aside from the beautiful January Jones) comes from the well telegraphed, but not really necessary turn of Magneto. His arc is really rather weak, going from Mossad assassin to Xavier’s best friend and confidant to unrepentant caller for the genocide of homo sapiens. It was obvious from the reveal of Sebastian’s helmet whom it was going to end up with and his tryst with Raven, while a great spot for a Rebecca Romijn cameo, was a little TOO MadMen with its cavalier sex for titillation’s sake instead of a natural romance with her true love interest for the movie or an insider’s fling with Azazel to produce a canon Nightcrawler.

What could have been drawn out into sequel movies is instead tacked on to the very end of the film with the inevitable human betrayal (which doesn’t make any sense to me), and is a weak setup for Charles and Erik’s now immediate adversarial relationship. In fact, the worst lines for both characters come in that five minute period where a wounded Charles lies in Erik’s lap. Their back and forth would make sense in the long run, but rushed as it was with little to no foundation, the final turn is empty and void.

Overall, though, the great acting on the part of the leads and background characters overshadows the few wooden performances and the strict attention to style and detail did wonders to pull in the audience, taking a rote period pulp adventure and turning it into probably the finest outing into the X-men universe we’ve had thus far. While the film didn’t beat out the current crop of Avenger’s era superhero movies (well, save for Thor *shudder*), it certainly puts its namesake forbearers to shame (much to my lamenting for Stewart and McKellen).

I would recommend folks see it in theaters and pick it up on video when it comes out.

-Nick Michael

P.S. – Is it me or was the role of Banshee a Rupert Grint role that didn’t actually go to Rupert Grint?

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