Thursday, 1 September 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Matthew Vaughn’s first stab at a heavy-calibre blockbuster and a partial vindication after bailing on X-Men: The Last Stand (2005), this latest entry into one of the best comic book franchises is both very pleasing and problematic. The basic idea, to offer an origin story describing the roots of the X-Men world through formative experiences of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), and play it out as a retro-futurist James Bond tribute, is an instantly seductive one. Yet the result, which possesses interludes of cool beauty, high emotion, and some terrific adventure, is also beset by rushed, uneven filmmaking, and a lumpy screenplay. First Class commences by circling back to the grim beginning of Bryan Singer’s series opener, with young Erik (Bill Milner) in a Nazi death camp, desperately reaching out to his parents as they’re herded away, twisting a gate into a modern artwork with his metal-affecting powers. This attracts the attention of Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), a Mengele type who seeks for a way to stimulate Erik’s powers so that he can direct them consciously. Schmidt’s mentoring method is to present a gold coin for Erik to shift, and to threaten to shoot his mother (Éva Magyar), plucked from the gas chamber queue, if he doesn’t. Vaughn practically drags the comic-book movie into realms indistinguishable from Sophie’s Choice here as Schmidt’s pressuring and mother’s assurances equally fail to stimulate Erik’s power; it’s not until Schmidt shoots her that Erik’s howling rage sees him compact soldiers’ helmets around their skulls and turn Schmidt’s surgery into a pile of rubble.

Meanwhile Xavier, equally young but growing up in the far more comfortable climes of Westchester, NY, finds the shape-shifting Raven (Morgan Lily) pretending to be his mother for the sake of stealing some food from his mansion. Xavier’s psychic powers instantly penetrate Raven’s disguise and when she reveals her true blue self, Xavier adopts her. Cut to 1962, when they’re both studying at Oxford, Raven perpetually adopting the blonde and reassuring disposition of Jennifer Lawrence, but fretting about her place in the world, whilst Xavier chats up co-eds with psychically augmented charm. Meanwhile Erik, grown into the form of Michael Fassbender and engendered with a lean, panther-like cool and deeply traumatised rage, is hunting down Schmidt, threatening Odessa-linked bankers and taking out ex-Nazis in Argentina, in an interlude that pays a winking nod to Fassbender’s epic beer hall scene in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and also Bond’s programme of hunting Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Schmidt, when he finds him, is revealed to be a practically ageless mutant, one who can absorb and direct energy, and has reinvented himself as the all-American playboy Sebastian Shaw. Shaw has collected a powerful team of aides, including chitinous telepathic seductress Emma Frost (January Jones) and teleporting assassin Azazel (Jason Flemyng).

Shaw is engineering what will be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, manipulating a Russian bigwig (Rade Serbedzija) and his American opposite Hendry (Glenn Morshower). CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) stumbles onto this plot and looks for someone, anyone, who can explain Shaw’s coterie of superhumans. This leads her to Xavier, who, sensing an opportunity for his breed to come out of the closet, swiftly convinces Oliver Platt, playing the Oliver Platt role, to take him and Raven on as mutant agents. Xavier accidentally outs Platt’s scientific whiz-kid Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) as another mutant; Hank’s engineering brilliance has produced prototypical versions of Cerebro and the Blackbird jet. Soon enough Xavier’s and Lensherr’s paths converge in hunting Shaw down, in a scene that amusingly extends the Bondian tribute, as Shaw’s yacht proves to have a submarine attached beneath it. Erik’s efforts to keep magnetic track of the submarine almost get him drowned, before Xavier pulls him away and convinces him to join the CIA project. They soon use Cerebro to find some fitting prospects for a team ofpotentially talented but callow young mutants to take on Shaw’s squad: sound wave-wielding Sean ‘Banshee’ Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), winged stripper Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), adaptive Armando ‘Darwin’ Muñoz (Edi Gathegi), and energy-hurling Alex ‘Havok’ Summers (Lucas Till). When Shaw launches adestructive assault on Platt’s headquarters, kills Darwin, and convinces Angel to join his side, Xavier and Lensherr hole up in Xavier’s mansion with the remnants of the teamto train them in controlling their powers as the Cuban Missile Crisis develops.

Vaughn’s  increasingly confident pictorial fluency, and effervescent touch with both actors and camera, successfully capture a vibrant yet also chic comic-book look and energy, which make this the most fundamentally likeable superhero flick since at least the first Iron Man (2008). First Class rockets at a swashbuckling pace and offers dazzling stylistic legerdemain essayed in an almost off-hand fashion, from a cheeky appropriation of high Hefner-era sexcapade, as McTaggart gamely strips down to her drawers to infiltrate a high-rollers club amidst an army of similarly attired hookers, to the retro surface textures of Shaw’s flashy submarine interior. Vaughn’s film buff bent also comes out in a Pentagon War Room exactlyreproducing that seen in Dr Strangelove (1964), pinching the opening credits of Dr. No (1962), and dashes of teen movies from all eras. I confess to being of two minds about a core aspect of the film’s pacing and style: part of the film’s beauty is its pure evocation of the unstoppable illustrative pace of classic serials, TV thrillers, and comic books – it’s a pure romp. But you don’t get too much of a chance to ogle any of it as you should. First Class is almost criminally in a hurry, and that’s probably 20th Century Fox’s fault more than Vaughn’s, as it was precisely his ability to indulge a sense of expansive atmosphere and nuance that made his first three films so good. Unfortunately, the film constantly bears traces of a pressure to get the film into release, and a wariness of distressing the fanboys with too much boring character stuff and period flavour, apparent in the often frustratingly arrhythmic editing and exasperatingly jerky narrative propulsion in the first half. Whereas Singer successfully made the series as much about repressed emotion and intellectual mind-games as it was about special effects and freaky superpowers, here the head stuff is pushed aside, which feels like a distinct cheat in the promise of building a portrait of the early character dynamics of the people soon to be Professor X, Magneto, and the rest. The film also attempts to compact far too much into its compact running time as far as getting to the eventual, familiar plot alignment goes, ending with Xavier and Magneto firmly entrenched in opposite camps notwithstanding what the series has already said about how they worked together and grew apart.

The screenplay, bearing the thumbprints of three different creative teams – a story by Singer and Sheldon Turner, developed by intermediate dramaturges Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz, and brought on home by Vaughn and his regular writing partner Jane Goldman – consistently sets up potentially beautiful story elements, but doesn’t quite deliver with the depth and force expected. None of them seem to have figured out to do with Jones’ lissome Frost, although considering that Jones displays, as in Unknown (2011), a completely listless and drearily immobile affect as a femme fatale, that’s probably a good thing. Lawrence, so galvanising in her preternatural sturdiness in Winter’s Bone (2010), is merely okay as Raven, evolving into Mystique: she gets to display none of the aggression that made Rebecca Romijn’s stint in the role so effective. There is a likeably kinky moment in which, disappointed with the self-loathing and sensual rejection of her true blue form by Hank, she instead slides into Erik’s bed, alternating façades before Erik prods to her assume her natural form, whereupon he kisses her with surprising tenderness. McCoy offers up one too many super-duper inventions which the team can just happen to put into play without the need for pace-slowing design and construction sequences. But Hoult excellently captures Hank’s vibrating unease with his secret, underscoring andfinally undoing his tentative romance with Raven, before his callow attempt to rid himself of exterior signs of his mutation results in transforming himself instead into the blue-haired, fearsome Beast, like Cocteau in reverse. Likewise, I’m not really sure if Byrne’s winsome yet competent McTaggart is germane to anything beyond giving Xavier a love interest, but I’m glad she’s there anyway, because Byrne has a capacity to invest almost any role with an air of soulful substance.

What the film really nails, in large part thanks to McAvoy and Fassbender’s terrific performances, is the brotherly friendship, and the much less easy alliance of methods and world-views, of Xavier and Lensherr. McAvoy’s customary fleet-tongued poise and air of conscientious intelligence balances Fassbender’s definitely Connery-esque presence as a young Lensherr, full of lethal intelligence and feral feeling. There’s an interesting undercurrent of deep miscommunication between the pair because of their different backgrounds – “Honestly, I don’t know how you survived,” Erik drawls upon seeing the colossal Xavier mansion which will eventually become the X-Men school – even as they bond over a sense of wonder and mission in realising their gifts. The suggestions of determinism of outlook here admirably fulfils a thread of the series, as Xavier’s prim humanism and Erik’s ever-seething resentment suggest formative influences that can’t entirely be erased, even as Xavier desperately argues otherwise. The film struggles with a bunch of supporting cast mutants who seem for the most part unremarkable or repetitive in their gifts, like Banshee, who can fly using his supersonic screaming powers, visualised with flourishes that truly capture the essence of the source material. The dialogue is occasionally, painfully anachronistic. But the middle act, depicting the rapid cohesion of the multi-racial, multi-talent young mutants finding a giddily enthusiastic fellowship, doomed to very soon be fractured by the pressures of force and destiny, captures something of the comic series’ roots in the ‘60s civil rights and counter-culture milieu. The finale, in which they play havoc with superpower squabbling, evokes the way those cultural explosions got rudely in the way of that squabbling.

Perhaps inevitably for the guy who made Layer Cake and Kick Ass, Vaughn brings an edge of relished violence and sexuality rare in mainstream comic book adaptations, and he really seems deeply passionate in these moments of cruel focus, especially in Erik’s moments of ruthlessness, tearing out teeth fillings with his powers – Vaughn indulging a money shot from within the victim’s mouth – to stabbing an ex-Nazi in the hand (twice) with his own SS knife. His coup-de-grace to Shaw is an act of relished punitive precision involving that fated gold coin. The film erratic energy surely pay off in a terrific action finale that retools the apocalyptic overtones of the Missile Crisis to its own ends, as the Cold War antagonists bond in stoic patriotism and mutual loathing of the mutants whose powers have just been terrifyingly displayed to them. Erik focuses his power at last and hauls Shaw’s submarineout of the ocean, before sub and Blackbird end up crashed on the Cuban shore in hunks of mangled technology testifying to powers almost beyond mortal control. Having revealed just how much he internalised Shaw’s lessons, Erik takes on a messianic air in the final few minutes as he performs his own equivalent of parting the Red Sea – turning back the superpowers’ weapons upon them. It’s an excellent SFX spectacle, and the pay-off, when Moira attempts to gun down Lensherr, now truly Magneto, only for his bullet-deflecting prowess to cause one to hit Xavier and paralyse him instead, is corny but somehow perfectly done. Top marks to John Mathieson’s candy-hued cinematography. Kudos, too, for the cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine: three words of dialogue, but he does stop the show with them.


Greg said...

I've only ever seen the first one. Not big into superhero movies but this one caught my eye because of the period feel. Too bad it's not given much attention (according to you, I mean, I haven't seen it) because that's the only thing that could get me to watch it. I think all Bond and superhero movies should take place in the sixties. All other movies, too, come to think of it.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Greg, thanks for slumming. I seem to have become a superhero movie fan mainly by dint of the fact they're the fun-type film Hollywood's making most these days, plus, yeah, I've kind of dug the genre since growing up with the Superman movies. Indeed, part of what was hard to write about this film is the way that it's definitely eye candy and yet could have rocked that much more. And you are right. Most any film could be improved by the addition of miniskirts and The Velvet Underground.

Greg said...

Most any film could be improved by the addition of miniskirts and The Velvet Underground.

It's what The King's Speech was missing.

Roderick Heath said...

That, and a reason for existing.