The re-boot: what an intriguing concept. A production company just Etch A Sketches the previous narrative to start a new one. One motive is the hope of re-invigorating a franchise that’s hobbling along; both Spider-Man and X-Men got their re-boots (Spider-Man hits next year) after weak third installments. Or maybe you just don’t want to spend the money to maintain your now-expensive lead actors and directors. For the audience it’s almost like losing the lottery: you spend three films (over the course of a decade) investing in the characters and their narrative, only to be told you’ll have to re-invest (maybe that’s more like the stock market). Fortunately X-Men First Class offers some legitimate incentives to do so, but it’s not without its flaws.
“Before he was Professor X he was Charles,” says the promotional posters for the prequel/re-boot for the X-Men franchise, struggling valiantly to connect the old brand with the new one. It’s the early 1960’s and as the Cold War simmers, the first sparks of “the Mutant issue” reveal themselves. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is asked to help the U.S. thwart the evil deeds of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender as the future Magneto) meets Xavier on his hunt Shaw for crimes committed against himself and his family.
The greatest villain for the X-Men isn’t actually in the film, but behind it, as the writers lay a minefield of explosively terrible dialogue waiting for victims. Mind you, there are stunning, jaw-dropping moments where you’re getting your money’s worth, but through wizardry or sheer incompetence, others crumble into disarray due to poor guidance. Director Matthew Vaughn’s last work Kick-Ass had the same tonal issues, wherein the delicate suspension of disbelief is snapped and you’ve lost the audience to their own incredulous laughter. It represents an unfortunate pattern of lacking control over the film’s path to proper catharsis.
And if there’s a lady in the audience prepare to be turned off (or turned on, depending on your preference), as there’s a strict “Skirts short, necklines plunging” policy on set, with literally not one female character allowed to keep their clothes on. Look, I’m a guy, and I get it, I’m supposed to enjoy this, but when the manipulation is so blatant and the disrespect for women so obvious, it’s just gross. It would almost be better if this were an R picture so they could show the nudity and jettison the idea that they’re being subtle about it.
MINOR SPOILER, SKIP PARAGRAPH
Oh, and if you happen to be a minority, prepare for disappointment. The only black character (and the only mutant, save for a bad one) gets killed half-way through the picture just so we know what’s at stake. “Quick Professor X, they killed our token black guy, now we’re really pissed!” At least he wasn’t the only other minority in the film – he could have been the mixed race girl who strips for a living and sides with the bad guys.*
MINOR SPOILERS OVER
There are obviously a lot of problems with the film, but one item makes it worth seeing: Michael Fassbender. The hate that drives Erik’s quest is delivered by Fassbender with a quiet menace that will have you holding your breath. Expectedly, Fassbender leaves his mark on every scene, making this more Magneto’s film than an X-Men picture. Considering there was talk of doing a Magneto origins movie to follow X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I wouldn’t be surprised if that script made it to First Class, since Magneto’s story is easily the best developed – the rest of the story and characters are merely his fortunate groupies.
Given what they have to work with, the rest of the cast keep the film grounded and with a realistic tenor (when not getting maimed by aforementioned script issues). With little screen time to do so, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique manages to make her relationship with Xavier feel well established and Kevin Bacon totally rocks the house – a great match for Fassbender’s intensity.
I have some major reservations about the film, but it’s quite a unique picture. When the film isn’t tripping over itself tonally, it dives headlong into darkness no one has touched since The Dark Knight. Erik is a Holocaust survivor (and more, as we learn in the film), taught that pain and rage were the fuels both for his existence and his powers. His time with Xavier forces him to confront his demons and the choices he makes are simultaneously horrifying and yet completely understandable – he’s human. Erik is no longer some comic-book villain, but a living breathing entity. Regardless of the film’s failings, that’s a success it can claim.
[Fan poster via]
*Even if we don’t want to call it outright racist, you can’t deny that it looks pretty bad – especially for a film franchise that’s all about triumphing people who are different. It even makes a nod to the enslavement of blacks in the U.S. After you’ve done that wouldn’t you say to yourself, “Hey, we killed the only black character. Maybe that doesn’t send the right message”?