Wednesday, October 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class (Bad Hat Harry Productions, Donners’ Company, Marv Films, Dune, 20th Century-Fox, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was X-Men: First Class, an odd choice since neither Charles nor I have ever been that interested in the X-Men — we’ve neither read the comics nor seen any of the previous films in the series — though I figured that wouldn’t be that much of a problem since this was supposed to be a prequel and an origin story rather than a sequel. Directed by Matthew Vaughn from a story and script by the usual committee — original (more or less) story by Bryan Singer (who also directed the first two X-Men films and was slated to helm this one as well until he got sidetracked by his schedule on Jack the Giant Killer) and Sheldon Turner, and a script started by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and finished by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn — this project started out as the origin of the X-Men’s principal villain, Magneto, t/n Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner as a boy, Michael Fassbender as an adult). Instead they decided to make it an overall origin story about the rise of the two X-Men factions (X-Men, in case you’ve been as in the dark about this cultural phenomenon as I was until last night, are mutant humans created by atomic radiation; they first appeared in the 1940’s as children and got together in two factions, one group of evil X-men and one group of good ones, in the 1960’s when the comic book was launched), one led first by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, whose star has fallen far enough that his name in the credits is prefaced with “and”) and then by Erik a.k.a. Magneto, and one led by Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher as a boy, James McAvoy as an adult), who’s both a mutant himself and a geneticist at Oxford University who uses his scientific knowledge to figure out what’s happened to him and the other mutants.

The other mutants include Raven, later Mystique (Morgan Lily as a girl, Jennifer Lawrence as an adult), who’s able to shape-shift to normal human appearance but whose natural state is humanoid in shape but with scaly blue skin and flaming red hair — she and Xavier get a nice meet-cute as kids when she breaks into his kitchen posing as his mother and he sees right through her disguise because she says she’s making him some hot chocolate and his real mom would have had a servant do that instead of doing it, or anything else for him, herself — plus Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Houdt), who has fingers rather than toes on his feet as well as his hands (and who later, thanks to a serum he gives himself to try to retain his powers but take on normal human appearance, transforms into a blue creature with wolfman-like facial hair, though the mutation doesn’t improve his eyesight any: he still needs the nerdy-looking glasses he started out with); Angel (Zoë Kravitz), who’s scouted at a strip club and who joins the good X-Men for a while but then defects to the bad ones; Sean Cassidy a.k.a. Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), whose mutant schtick is being able to deliver a loud, piercing, at least partially ultrasonic scream (he also learns midway through the film how to fly by using his screams to keep himself aloft on artificial wings, which turns out to be important after Angel, the only other mutant who can fly, defects); and Havok a.k.a. Alex Summers (Lucas Till). There’s also a Black mutant, but he’s killed off about halfway through the film, as well as a woman whose natural skin is made of diamonds, but she disappears midway through and only reappears at the end.

The movie is intriguing for a superhero story in that it incorporates actual history — it begins in 1944 and ends in 1962 against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, in which the mutants on both sides play an important part: Sebastian tries to manipulate events to spark a nuclear war in which normal humans will die but the mutants will live and eventually take over the world (the fact that given the assumption of the story that radiation created the mutants in the first place, he doesn’t stop to think that a nuclear war will exponentially increase the population of mutants and therefore the number of rivals with the power to bring down the absolute dictatorial rule he was hoping to establish on the future Earth) and the good X-Men try to stop him; they do so but then the U.S. and the Russians mount a joint attack on them and this causes Erik to defect from member of the good X-Men to leader of the bad ones.

There are a lot of interesting references to the language of Queer liberation — including one scene in which Raven assumes her normal blue-skinned appearance and proclaims herself “Mutant and Proud!,” another in which she and Erik are about to make love, only she’s in her blond fair-skinned (white) human’s guise and Erik insists that she’ll only turn him on if she goes blue (at this point I started an MST3K-style interpolation by singing Billy Joel’s song “Just the Way You Are”!); and a lot of rhetoric about how ordinary humans will always be prejudiced against mutants and therefore mutants should demand equality rather than expect to get it by petitioning for it or working to save humans’ butts. There’s also so many references to Nietzsche’s famous quote, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,” that Nietzsche practically deserved a co-writer credit. X-Men: First Class is a decent superhero movie in the modern manner, though a lot of it (especially the exposition in the first hour) seems to drag on forever, and frankly the mutant powers of the X-Men are simply not as compelling visually as the powers of some of the other Marvel heroes (notably Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Thor).

The two Fantastic Four movies and Thor remain my favorite movies based on the Marvel universe; this one mostly stays free of the insufferable pretensions Christopher Nolan laid onto the Batman movies (though including Nazis and Soviets in the dramatis personae — Erik was the subject of Mengele-like experiments as a child in 1944 Poland — enabled some more subtle political parallels and morals to be inserted into the script) — but it’s also surprisingly draggy in parts and James McAvoy seemed too nerdy an actor for the role of a charismatic professor who assembles the X-Men team and leads it even at the cost of his own mobility at the end (he ends up paralyzed below the waist and in a wheelchair — something that didn’t happen in the comics until the 1980’s but happens in this film in 1962, which got the filmmakers some pissy notes from X-Men comic fans who were upset that it happened so early), and though 10 minutes of the advertised 132-minute running time is taken up by a final credits roll, there isn’t one of the amusing post-credits sequences that have become a trademark in other Marvel movies (so you can safely turn off the DVD when the credits come on and not think you’re going to miss anything).