Monday, June 20, 2011

X-Men: First Class Review

To call X-Men: First Class a disappointment is not being fair. It is leaps and bounds ahead of the last two X-Men movies: The Last Stand and Wolverine. It is tightly directed, reasonably well-acted, and decently exciting. By any normal metric, a 'disappointment' is not the correct term for this movie.

However, I have insider information. I know some backstory to the various permutations of the X-Men intellectual property. And this background makes First Class almost unbearable to watch. It is a Frankenstein of a movie with stitches so indelicately sewing it together that I am shocked there aren't more reviewers crying foul.

Should have been Magneto
After the success of the first two X-movies, profiteering studio executives green-lit a variety of sequels and offshoots. One of these tangential stories was intended to be focused on Magneto. An origin story that fleshed out the tortured old mutant so hilariously portrayed by Ian Mckellen on the silver screen. (Some of Magneto's lines in X2 are genuinely hilarious thanks to Mckellen's delivery. A crotchety, borderline bat-shit old man, stewing in his own juices, finding amusement where he can in his initial captivity. Then his gleeful escape to freedom and subsequent villainy. Sir Ian clearly had a gas of a time acting in X2 and his fun is infectious.) This stand-alone Magneto movie got underway with some scripts being penned, some actors being called, but the explosion of interest in Marvel's other IP's sidetracked the Magneto project.

The story of Magneto would be a perfect fit for the PG-13 target of comic book movies. Reasonably dark, exploring basic moral ambiguities, but still popcorn enough to bring in the summer crowds looking for entertainment and air conditioning. It would trace Erik Lensher's hunt for the Nazi who killed his family and, in so doing, gave Erik the emotional focus of rage to tap into his powers. It would be an origin story, a human story, and a revenge tale.

Kevin Bacon. Out-sexying January Jones.
If this sounds familiar to those who have seen even a trailer for First Class, it's because that movie is built on the scaffolding of this plot. And, for the first half of the movie at least, First Class hangs together nicely. There's a womanizing Charles Xavier, a brooding Erik Lensher, and a delightful performance by Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw. The movie enjoys its period setting, playing up the campy, Bond-inspired villains, the go-go sexiness of female super-spies, the 60's zeitgeist, just starting to loosen its tie and really get into the heady revolutions of the 70's. The first half of First Class is first rate.

Then something happens. Taken in by the CIA, Charles and Erik agree to use a machine called Cerebro to discover other mutants. The final act of the good movie that First Class promised to be goes out in grand style with a fun montage of Charles and Erik finding new mutants. There they are in a strip club, picking up Angel. Then to a juvenile prison to get Havoc. A cameo by Hugh Jackman brings a couple chuckles. The problem is that this glorious final act comes only halfway into First Class's running time. It is the titular X-Men (though they should be called X-Children given their youth) that ruin X-Men: First Class.

Three's a crowd, guys.
By the time these new recruits are given a few moments to formally introduce themselves, the movie is lost. After the initially thrilling montage, with the wonderful 60's acid rock and the parade of beautiful people, after a second montage in which the mutants give themselves nicknames, after a confusing action sequence in which the only black character (who we've barely been introduced to*) is killed, after a third montage of the team training at Xavier's mansion, after powers being tested, after humor, after slapstick, after paint-by-number relationships being established, finally we're deposited at the hearth of the film's climax as period-footage of Kennedy sets up the final set piece of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The viewer is exhausted at this point. It's almost 15 minutes of montage and voice-overs. 15 minutes of indigestible, lazy film work. A script that goes into a nosedive, taking the otherwise fresh direction and stirring acting with it. 15 minutes is an eternity in movie-making and every second creeps by slower than the previous. Most tragically, the viewer loses the intimacy he felt with Charles and Erik. It's like the characters of Xavier and Magneto resent the inclusion of these attractive brats and no longer want to be a part of the movie.

A testament to the quality of the first half that so many reviewers seem to forgive First Class for it's bloated middle. Though bloated isn't enough to describe this mess. Bloated is just the beginning. There are also thick black stitches, oozing pus, bruising, tufts of hair. This once-attractive movie has been horribly disfigured by the addition of the first X-Men. An entirely different movie has been soldered onto Magneto's story and, though the basic overarching plot resolves itself around him, the tone and feel of the movie is jarringly different.

X-Men: First Class
It's not hard to imagine what happened. Studio executives ran the numbers, consulted their demographics, thought in a think-tank, and decided Magneto didn't have the same recognition as X-Men. Instead of writing a different movie, these executives demanded that the X-Men simply be added to the mix. Piled on top. 'Don't bother rewriting the whole thing,' they said, puffing their cigars and farting quietly in their leather chairs, 'Just add a few X-Men to it.' And the dutiful writers, crushed that their brilliant Magneto origin story was being undone, went back to their desks and added kids to their character-driven revenge story. Kids. Distracting, inconsequential, attractive kids.

A threat to my heterosexuality.
It's not a total loss though. Kevin Bacon still steals the show. Michael Fassbender is still the hottest thing on two legs right now. And the hints of moral ambiguity are still ambiguous. (Imploring his friend for mercy at the film's climax, Charles begs that the men he is about to kill are innocent, good men with families who are just following orders. And just as the audience is about to nod in agreement, Erik reminds us that the Holocaust wouldn't have been possible without the masses of people who were just following orders.)

It's a stirring moment, made all the more jarring by the recollection of what a good movie this was just one hour ago. The recognition that this moment could have been far more powerful had the overarching film stuck to its guns.

This is the real failure of the movie and the reason it is getting perhaps more venom than it really deserves here at BofHam. There is something unspeakably offensive when the machinations of the fat cats are too transparent. We're not calling them greedy nor damning them out for trying to make money. This is their business and it is foolish to imagine a system in which movies get made without a care in the world for the almighty buck. However, when it's so obvious, when the cleavage between the original script and the amended seat-filler is so disgustingly visible, when all pretense of art and commercial product walking hand-in-hand is thrown out, irks us.

*The premature death of the one black character in First Class is genuinely shocking and indicative of the degree to which the writers have lost their grip on the story, to say nothing of the mythos. When they first came out, X-Men comics were some of the most socially conscious around. Today they represent teenage ostracism and are often metaphors for homosexuality in the United States. But the first comics were more concerned with parallels to the Civil Rights Movement and racial equality. This is the era in which they were born, this is the society which they commented on, and to have the only black character killed in such an unexpected, early way is confounding. It would feel offensive did it not reek of ineptitude.

1 comment:

  1. Best review out there. Anybody notice that when Shaw says "enslaved" they pane on to the black guy? Absolutely classless.