Friday, June 3, 2011

OF GODS AND MONSTERS AND MUTANTS


When it comes to man versus beast, men usually are far more vicious than any animal. Hollywood has always understood that truth and that’s why in most of its monster tales, be it King Kong, the werewolf or the Thing, man is always the greater threat. And it’s certainly true with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the newest movie from 20th Century Fox’s lucrative X-Men franchise. It’s an origins story that pits humans versus mutants once again. And this time, like all the others, the monsters have nothing on the horrors of man.  

The good guys in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till)
After four movies in the franchise, Fox decided to reboot the series by starting at the beginning, in 1962, when a young Charles Xavier (soon to become Professor X) first met the young Erik Lehnsherr (soon to become Magneto) and the whole world was just becoming aware of mutants in their midst. How fitting considering the seminal comic book series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first hit newsstands in the early sixties as well. X-Men were not your typical comic book heroes then, worshipped like gods as Superman was. They were troubled outsiders, born with an extra gene, an “X” gene that rendered them the next evolution of man. They could read thoughts, walk through walls, time travel, and start fires with their evolved minds. Despite these gifts they were persecuted for being different and X-Men quickly became a metaphor for all the other oppressed people in the sixties, like minorities and women, fighting for their place in society.


The story here starts with one beleaguered mutant named Sebastian Shaw (a smarmy Kevin Bacon) who’s decided he’s had enough of the ruling class. He orchestrates a scheme to rid the world of those who haven’t evolved, mentally or physically, by pitting Russia and the USA against each other in the waters just off of Cuba. While the CIA tries to figure out what’s going on with this Cold War plot, a smart young agent (Rose Byrne) discovers Shaw’s plan and hires good mutants to take out the bad one. She rounds up Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) and they in turn recruit a handful of young mutants to help them fight the good fight. Chief amongst them are Jennifer Lawrence, in a sly turn as shape-shifting teen Raven Darkholme (aka Mystique), and Nicholas Hoult, all sweetness and vulnerability as Dr. Hank McCoy, the scientist with gangly ape feet. Soon it’s a Mutant-palooza in the Straits of Florida as the good guys try to prevent the missiles of October from starting World War III.
Kevin Bacon and January Jones play two of the bad guys in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
Despite the nuclear age theatrics, and the obvious themes of oppression, these serious motifs never bog down the film. Director Matthew Vaughn and his team ensure that this is fun entertainment from first frame to last.  A lot of the flair comes from the cheeky sixties production values referencing everything from DR. NO to DR. STRANGELOVE to MAD MEN. (Not for nothing was the ex Mrs. Don Draper herself, January Jones, cast as Shaw’s moll Emma Frost. She looks Tiffany brilliant in her skimpy white ensembles and diamond-skinned appearance.) The writing is exceptionally clever throughout and finds all kinds of witty ways to introduce X-Men staples like Magneto’s helmet, the Cerebro device and Charles’ eventual chrome dome. The film even finds time for some superb self-mockery by working in two hilarious cameos from previous franchise favorites. (A certain hirsute hero uses the F word here and it gets the single biggest laugh in a movie I’ve heard all year long.)
Jennifer Lawrence plays the mutant Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS a movie that is both old school and new school simultaneously. Like the previous X-Men films, a lot of secondary characters are kids. (Evolving mutant physiology also works as a metaphor for teen hormones and their maturing bodies, natch.) Jennifer Lawrence in particular shines in her teen role. She really makes a lot out of this supporting role, building on the great promise shown by her Oscar nominated work in last year’s WINTER’S BONE. She never lets Mystique’s blue make-up overwhelm the character. Her performance is one of great sensitivity and her yearning eyes speak volumes, even with yellow contacts in them!

If there’s one criticism I have for the movie it’s that despite the sixties settings and new cast, a lot of this feels very familiar. There’s a thin line between reverential cameos and repeating bits that get an audience laughing in recognition and that which appears to be so “been there, done that’ already. I hope that as they move forward with the next films the powers that be tap some of the two dozen other X-Men characters created over the comics’ fifty years and let them stand at the center of a movie or two, not just be peripheral presences. I love Professor X and Magneto as much as the next guy but others need to take center stage. Please give Wolverine’s claws a rest and give Mystique or Emma Frost their own movie.

Still, for my money, this is the best monster franchise going these days. And like all of the best monster sagas, this one has a lot to say about the real world we live in today. At the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the most appalling villains aren’t the egomaniacal Shaw and his minions, or the revenge driven Magneto, but rather the super powers that aim to oppress. In 1962 their hubris nearly ended the world in a mushroom cloud. Today government leaders balk at bailing out Joplin tornado victims while saving the bacon of their rich buddies on Wall Street. We too are oppressed, just like those mutants, fighting the real monsters in our midst. Only we can’t penetrate their minds like Professor X and knock some sense into their frontal lobes. Frankly, I’m with Magneto on this one – wrap the villains in metal chains and throw away the key!

2 comments:

  1. I went into this film completely oblivious to what it was about, having been one of the few, apparently, who has never seen an X-Men film. Or hardly any comics-based movies for that matter. I enjoyed the storyline and the various mutant characters quite a bit, although the 60’s period credibility left something to be desired. Two things stood out for me after having watched the new X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and subsequently the original X-MEN from 2000.

    First, it’s obvious that the mutants, their history, powers and weaknesses and the storyline itself have been previously documented in incredible detail over time. There is a lot to know, especially if you are not a follower of this series, which would have been incredibly insightful. I found later reading about the various characters as interesting as the film itself, and wished I had known more while watching. The films would have been better served to have shared more detail and color about the origins of things, to really bring these mutants alive and out of a two-dimensional comic book. Which would further serve to bring out in me more of an emotional reaction about what happens to them. Hard to do in such limited time? Watch how masterfully this was done in a 4-minute scene between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original 1977 STAR WARS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukbTFgQ4jxs

    Second, it would also have been more effective to occasionally bring out more varied emotion in the mutants beyond the constant drama. There were some funny lines, but precious few. STAR WARS did this very effectively and comically, particularly in the relationships between the 3 humans (Luke, Hans Solo, and Princess Leia) and the 3 not-quite-so humans (R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewbacca). The sarcasm and humor of Hans Solo is what made STAR WARS so memorable: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1YbFnkZwZk

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  2. Dear Fan, thanks for your comments. You make excellent points. And with an ambitious project like the X-Men with so many characters, it was hard to get as much character development as one desired. In the first X-Men movie, Mystique and Toad and Sabretooth seem to barely have 10 lines between them! Still, I think they treated the material nobly with great results. Very few characters can stand up to the indelible ones created in STAR WARS although I'd argue that they too were a bit one-dimensional in the first film and they deepened with subsequent outings. No matter, that saga's original three releases are truly exceptional, with iconic characters. And I think you could say the same of the first two X-Men movies, and their iconic characters Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and Rogue. And the reboot that just opened this past weekend is a terrific addition to that franchise. Much more so than the three prequels to the STAR WARS saga. They were quite awful!

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