Friday, June 10, 2011

Mad Mutants: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

With X-Men: First Class the franchise that started in 2000, peaked with 2003’s X2 and then went on to finish off a trilogy and limp through a prequel, has looped around to a second prequel that finally gets down to showing how a group of mutants formed the X-Men in the first place. This is all expositional dialogue from earlier movies tweaked, fleshed out, and made into one mostly coherent feature, but unlike 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, First Class is still capable of surprise. Rather than dutifully double-knotting loose ends that have already been tied, this movie takes a lot of pleasure in its comic-book style mythmaking.

It strikes me that the X-Men series now cumulatively is the best page-to-screen adaptation of the feel of a comic book series with its complicated, overlapping backstories, its ever evolving retconning, and its intricate, sometimes gap-filled, puzzle of exposition spread out across five installments. This new film starts off with several sequences that feel like separate issues of a comic that slowly merge into one storyline. We see a young Erik Lensherr in a World-War-II concentration camp bending a metal gate and then brought before a devious Nazi who, in a jarring edit that crosses the 180 degree line to good effect, is revealed to be a bit of a mad scientist interested in discovering and experimenting with mutated powers. We then see a young Charles Xavier using his telepathy to discover a shape-shifting orphan that has snuck into his cold family’s cavernous mansion, bring some hope to an alienated child.

From there, the movie flits between the two boys who quickly are shown to be young men. It’s the late 50’s. Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down hidden Nazis while Xavier (James McAvoy) is working on his thesis at Oxford. They have different approaches towards using their mutations. Lensherr uses his for the power and violent revenge it allows him. Xavier, on the other hand, uses his seamlessly and secretively to give him an (unfair) advantage in social situations. One is all about making himself known; the other prefers to calmly blend in. What’s nice about these early-years portions of the film is the way it reveals their character traits through action. This helps propel the momentum ever forward without (or at least rarely) getting bogged down in the gooey nonsense of characters talking overtly about themselves in unconvincing ways.

Moving forward, into the 60’s, the film is jam-packed with plot and exposition. While good use of the period bric-a-brac allows for fashion, technology and music to flesh out the setting, the film has curiously little use for the civil rights struggle. You would think that would be the clearest allegory for mutants, much like Bryan Singer’s first two films in the series used mutants as a stand in for gay rights. This film has little time for allegory outside of a few dull stabs at social import that are mostly cringe-worthy, like the treatment of the film’s only African American. But in a movie this dense with plot, themes have a tendency to get ignored and when attention is finally, fleetingly, turned upon them, it feels awfully ham-fisted.

Aside from building (and rebuilding) characters and the universe, this is essentially a spy movie. The film busies itself with C.I.A. intrigue involving some well-intentioned agents (Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt) who want to recruit some mutants. To start with, they need a scientist who specializes in researching and theorizing about human mutations. They find one in Charles Xavier. They’re interested in using his knowledge to help in dealing with the devious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon!) who, reconnaissance tells them, just might have a group of mutant henchmen helping to heat up the Cold War. Why else would he hang around with three surly thugs (January Jones, Alex Gonzalez, and Jason Flemyng) who can provide mysterious, otherworldly enhancements to their intimidations?

This is a large cast, but all of the key elements fall into place in a pleasing manner. Fassbender and McAvoy, fine actors both, never condescend to their roles. With great seriousness, and more than a little bit of obvious pleasure, they command the screen with their fantastic presences. Fassbender, especially, has a kind of epic glower and a muscular suaveness that, in conjunction with his turtlenecks and leather jackets, feels just about as close to a resurrection of 60’s-era Steve McQueen or Sean Connery as we’ll ever get. As for the villain, Kevin Bacon hams it up – he’s clearly having a blast – but he manages to be an awfully serious threat at the same time.

The rest of the cast, while often less noteworthy, tend to be well equipped for what they’re asked to do. The “First Class” itself doesn’t even show up until not too long before the climactic action. But as the team assembles throughout the movie, despite the new characters receiving far less characterization that the main men, it’s fun more often than not to see both young versions of established characters like Mystique (now Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (now Nicholas Hoult) as well as new-to-the-screen characters like the howling Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and the energy-beam-shooting Havoc (Lucas Till). (Shortchanged is Zoe Kravitz as the flying and fireball-spitting Angel who is given the least heroics to do). True to the series pattern of creating eccentric ensembles with powers of varying believability, the group is a fine mix of sci-fi powers that end up working together in fun combinations in the final blast of action.

Despite the heavy amount of plot placed upon the film, it still manages to deliver the summer-movie goods at a rapid-fire pace. Director Matthew Vaughn (who directed last year’s superhero semi-satire Kick-Ass, a movie I enjoyed but slowly slightly soured on) concocts with his five co-writers a pleasing succession of smashing action beats that crash forward with a reassuring regularity. This is a big budget effects-heavy film that features some fine acting and some pleasing action. It’s also the rare franchise film that’s light on its feet despite the weight of accrued details.

It manages a brisk pace and can be quite funny at times, even finding ways to have some small fun with its occasional comic-book corniness (a telepath-blocking helmet is very cool, somewhat menacing, and fairly silly, all in the same instant). The vibrant, saturated colors and a smidgeon of self-conscious winking in the production design (including brief nods to Dr. Strangelove and Basic Instinct of all things) and small cameos do much to further the sense of both continuity and originality. It’s a prequel that’s most satisfying precisely because it finds a good balance between paying homage to all that’s come before and striking out on its own. There are enjoyable nods towards the franchise’s past while laying great groundwork for its potential future.

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