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Non-Review Review: X-Men – First Class

X-Men: First Class is easily the best thing to emerge from Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie franchise since X-Men II, all those years ago. Jane Goldman’s smart script and Matthew Vaughn’s confident direction help inject life back into the franchise that stirred up this current superhero blockbuster fad, providing one of the finest examples of the subgenre. Although the movie does occasionally veer a little bit too close to (and, once or twice, right into) camp, it’s also a clever, brave, bold and exciting action adventure, which provides the best characterisation of the series to date.

We've got it covered...

In fact, it’s that characterisation which makes the movie so appealing. Although the primary focus is on Erik and (to a surprising extent) Charles, even the movie’s team of merry mutants gets some nice moments – with many supporting characters given stronger voices than some of the nominal leads in the original trilogy. It’s very telling that one of the movie’s smaller subplots, the one following Hank McCoy’s quest to be normal, actually manages to create a sense of pathos around a particular scene in the much maligned X-Men III.

As the character here proclaims, “we need this cure!” and suffers terribly for his scientific arrogance, I couldn’t help but think of the moment in the original trilogy’s final instalment where McCoy – arguing against a cure – reached out his hand and saw it become human again, if only for a moment. That moment, a throw away moment in what is arguably a throw away film, actually becomes more poignant as a direct result of Vaughn’s work here. That is some very neat work, I must confess.

A beast of a film?

The obvious comparison to what Vaughn is attempting here – and something I see thrown around a lot – is to suggest that the director of Kick-Ass is “pulling a Nolan.” Much as Nolan followed Schumacher and Burton by taking Batman back to basics with much success, Vaughn seems to be doing the same here following Ratner and Singer. It’s an appealing comparison to make – and, to be honest, I don’t think the gap in quality is so big as to render it unfair. However, I don’t necessarily think it’s apt. There are some very clear differences between what Nolan did and what Vaughn is doing.

The most obvious distinction is that Nolan “rebooted” Batman, while Vaughn is working on a straight-up prequel. It might seem an academic distinction, but it isn’t. Several cameos and the ending of the film seek to remind us that this movie is explaining how the status quo in the first X-Men movie came to be. It is, in essence, a belated origin. While Nolan completely threw out a lot of what came before, and didn’t have to worry about his work fitting in the context of his predecessors, Vaughn needs to walk the tightrope between telling an engaging and entertaining story in its own right, and setting up character dynamics that would be picked up in the films to follow.

Truth be told, there are a few obvious migraines to be caused if one attempts to fit all the movies together. For example, since this is the story of the split between Charles and Erik, it makes it a lot harder to put the opening scene of X-Men III (where they recruit Jean Grey together) in context. I honestly don’t care. Continuity be damned, Vaughn was attempting to make the best movie possible – and quite right, too. I don’t mind if everything doesn’t fit, as long as it’s well-written and well-handled.

Mind over matter?

Even with that in mind, this gives Vaughn less room to move, and certainly a lot less freedom. In fairness to the film, it does try its best to minimise the references to the original set of films. It does give us another take on that iconic opening sequence from the very first film, but it also provides tonnes of references to various other iterations of the X-Men myth, as recycled through the ages. As such, although Vaughn is bound by what came before, he manages to do a great job of never seeming to be trapped. We know that the schism between Erik and Charles is coming, but we don’t know how. More than that, though, we don’t know who. Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto were thinly-drawn archetypes during the original set of films, the appeal of the actors not withstanding. Here they evolve into fully formed characters.

I love Vaughn and Goldman’s take on the Master of Magnetism. Granted, the childhood sequences where Eric’s powers are linked to his “rage” are a little cringeworthy as we watch a child actor having an awkwardly-staged tantrum, but the two writers genuinely get Magneto as a character. There’s something wonderful about the way that, playing into the rich historical context of the Jewish mindset following the atrocities of the Second World War, Magneto becomes the personification of militant Jewish outrage. “Never again,” he proclaims at the climax of the movie (the tagline of the real-life Jewish Defense League), and we’re introduced to a fully grown Magneto hunting Nazis around the globe.

All Fired up...

Indeed, Vaughn and Goldman cleverly take their cue from sixties James Bond with the character. It works well, because Fassbender looks like a worthy successor to Connery, but also because that sixties version of Bond was an all-together more dangerous sort of creature. Like Magneto here, he wore a sharp suit, but his anger was dangerous and he was never afraid to get blood on his hands. Magneto traipses around Switzerland and South America, torturing people for information while speaking smoothly and fluently in their own tongues. It’s a very clever reference point for Magneto, a man of violence who tries to hide it under a calm veneer (Ian McKellen masked the character’s anger behind practiced and restrained rhetoric).

However, the smartest thing that Vaughn and Goldman do with the character is to expressly link his mindset to those who murdered his family. His doctrine of mutant superiority is no different from the racial purity that the Nazi regime sought, and the film acknowledges this in casting its villain – Sebastian Shaw – as a former Nazi (strictly in it because their methods “get results”, in his own words). We know Magneto will come to share Shaw’s views about racial superiority, which marks a full circle for Magneto from victim to oppressor. This isn’t a new observation, but it’s the smartest way I have ever seen it articulated. Fassbender is great in the role, even if his Irish accent seems a bit strange from time to time.

Can you resist his magnetism?

That said, I was infinitely more impressed with how the movie portrayed Charles Xavier, the bald wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men. There have been two main portrayals of the character in popular culture, both extremes and both extremely boring. The first portrays Charles as something of the ultimate altruist, an almost divine individual selflessly devoted to making the world a better place through the belief that one day we’ll all hold hands and sing folk songs together. This is something of the classical portrayal of Charles, and the one reflected mostly in Patrick Stewart’s take on the character.

The more recent characterisation suggested by the comics is that Charles is a much more selfish individual, willing to lie, cheat and steal in order to get the result he wants, and who doesn’t have the stomach for direct confrontation, being weak-willed and almost cowardly. Neither portrayal is especially nuanced or sophisticated, which is why it’s remarkable that the movie – and James McAvoy – do such a fantastic job with the character.

On reflection, I quite enjoyed it...

Charles here is very clearly and unambiguously from “old money.” The mansion from the original films is revealed to be his inheritance. On arriving for the first time, Erik sarcastically remarks that he pities Charles, “living in such hardship.” Charles is an academic. He’s exceedingly smart, becoming a Fellow of Oxford at a very young age after writing a thesis about the extinction of mankind. He moves in circles, hitting on coeds with the same old smug routine (all attractive women, it seems, have some “groovy” mutation or other), while drinking unhealthy amounts of beer. some “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

He claims to be sympathetic to the plight of mutants like the blue-skinned Raven or even Magneto himself, but he speaks from an academic distance. He and his beautiful companions may joke about attempts to “reclaim” the word “mutant”, and offer ironic statements like, “mutant and proud”, but there’s little indication that Charles really appreciates what it is to be different in such a fundamental way. His “disadvantage” has allowed him to breeze through life and manipulate those around him. It’s easy for him to preach passive political engagement. He has never been rejected because of his looks or experimented upon because of what he can do. In fact, he gives not a moment of thought to absent-mindedly “outing” Hank McCoy as a mutant, a decision which could have had dire consequences for the closeted mutant.

There’s a nice moment as Erik prepares to leave the group to continue on his own personal quest for revenge. Charles is, of course, waiting for him outside. He begs his friend to stay and help him lead this new race. “I won’t make you stay,” he promises, as the sentiment shifts into a thinly veiled threat. “I could, but I won’t.” It’s hard not to worry about the power that Charles holds and how he uses it – referring to the act of brainwashing a CIA agent as a “magic trick.” Indeed, when Magneto acquires his trademark telepath-proof helmet, it’s hard not to argue that he’s just being prudent. “Not that I don’t trust you, Charles,” he idly and sarcastically remarks.

School is in session...

The most fascinating idea, and it’s one only fleetingly suggested by the movie, is the idea that Charles is playing the long game here. That he is just as cynical and superior as Sebastian and Erik. In the midst of a disastrous strike against Shaw, with countless human soldiers scattered in the water, Charles is only concerned about the mutant he has picked up. “There’s someone lost out there,” he remarks, not referring to the troops cast aside by Shaw, but to Erik embarking on his quest for vengeance. Even his thesis makes it clear – through the analogy of the extinction of homo neanderthalensis driven by the arrival of homo sapiens millenia ago (one borrowed from Grant Morrison’s superb New X-Men) – that he believes mutants will eventually not just live beside, but replace humanity. He just isn’t willing to commit genocide to see that happen sooner.

In fact, the movie suggests that Charles will simple “play along” with the powers that be in order to minimise conflict and bloodshed. If humans are to be extinct, there’s no need to cause a bloody mess. It’s telling that his father, preoccupied with the possibility of nuclear war, built a bomb shelter under the Mansion. Charles grew up in the shadow of that fear, and it shaped him into the man he is. Why fight a war when you can just out last your evolutionary rivals?

Raven remarks at one point that she hoped it would be Charles and herself against the world, “but you don’t ever seem to want to be against the world.” When the CIA wants Charles to recruit a mutant team for them, it’s Erik who says that he doesn’t want the government hunting down mutants. Charles seems fine with playing along with what amounts to registration, and only changes his mind when he sees it as a potential split with Erik. It seems like Charles makes his stand purely to keep Erik on side.

Frost-y Lady...

There’s no denying the character’s arrogance, tempered as it is by optimism. He promised Raven he would never read her mind, but seems to wander through other people’s thoughts with alarming comfort (discovering Hank is a mutant, for example). He sees it as his divine right to lead mutants, and Magneto correctly questions his plan to seek them out. “What if they don’t want to be found by you?” Erik asks, and is never really answered. Later on, he even sees fit to erase the memory of a close friend who has shown the team nothing but support. Hell, there must be some ego involved in naming the superhero team after himself. Of course, he waits for another to suggest it, but supports it fully. “I like the sound of that.” I bet you do, Charles.

This isn’t to say his ideas are cynical or anything like that. The movie makes it clear that Charles does believe in peaceful coexistence. However, while his ideas are good, the film really dares to wonder whether he isn’t flawed in his own very particular ways. Being honest, I never thought that Charles Xavier would ever seem like a “real” character, serving as a plot function to unite and coordinate his team, but here he really does. And that’s a credit to both McAvoy (who is brilliant) and the writing team.

Playing games with one another...

Back at the start of the review, I mentioned the comparison between this movie and Nolan’s Batman reboot. Aside from the difference between a prequel and reboot, the most obvious distinction seems to be that Vaughn is moving his film almost in the complete opposite direction. Nolan’s Batman Begins was perhaps the most firmly “grounded” superhero movie to date, priding itself on toning down the more ridiculous elements of the mythos, offering a gritty and urban take on the Dark Knight following the campy excesses of the Schumacher films and the heavily stylised atmosphere of Burton’s offerings. Vaughn does something completely different.

Even today, Singer’s X-Men is quite grounded by the standards of the genre. Despite the fact the characters shoot lasers from their eyes or create storms, he toned down the more “out there” elements of the mythos. The blue and gold outfits gave way to utilitarian black leather. Magneto dressed in grey instead of a loud red. Female characters didn’t have to worry about getting a cold if they stepped outside. There was nothing as loud as, say, Spider-Man’s red and blue outfits or his Technicolor foes. Here, however, Vaughn seems to suggest that perhaps we could have turned the saturation up a bit on Singer’s vision.

Can Charles stick to his guns?

Not only are those blue and gold X-Men jumpsuits back, Magneto also wears a much heavier shade of red. His helmet, in its final state, includes the stylised horns that Jack Kirby gave it back in the 1960s, but have faded out of the comics since then. The film even has a rather kinky bondage theme playing out with lingerie-wearing Emma Frost. It’s an element of the mythos that writer Chris Claremont seemed to play up, and I’m surprised we even get to see Magneto and Emma engage in some restraint and “breath play.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – indeed, bondage is a sexual subtext about trust and power, two key themes of the X-Men franchise, so it has always fit quite naturally – but it’s just something that Vaughn’s movie is lot more candid about. Indeed, it would seem quite strange use Emma (“the White Queen”) without acknowledging the subtext.

There are a lot of references to the classic comic books, and the movie seems a lot more at easy with its four-colour roots than its direct predecessors. Shaw refers to the mutants as “the children of the atom” (one of Stan lee’s favourite atomic age descriptions of the team) and at one point even repeats the tagline about a world that “fears and hates”our characters, and there are all manner of subtle and none-too-subtle references to the source material. This extends from the classic Lee and Kirby run through to Claremont and Byrne and even to modern writers like Ed Brubaker (who created Darwin) and Grant Morrison (who created Angel, and Emma’s diamond form). Even the movie’s mutant teleporter (apparently the father of the character from the second film) is rendered in far brighter colours than his earlier counterpart.

As a result, the film feels much more like an amalgamation from multiple sources than the original movie series did. In the most affectionate way possible, the visual design of the film seems to be somewhere between the much-loved X-Men: The Animated Series and Bryan Singer’s somewhat more toned-down vision. It’s a tough line to walk, and Vaughn deserves credit for pulling it off as well as he does.

Not a hard cell...

There are times at which the resulting camp does threaten to overwhelm the production. There’s a little too much of the Adam West classic Batman! in the film, with four supervillains lounging around instead a delightfully sixties submarine. I could have done without the shoutout to the “kiss of forgetting” from Superman II, even if it makes a hell of a lot more sense here than it there. The child actors in the opening scenes are just a little bit awkward, with Erik looking like he’s throwing a wobbly and Charles sounding far too British. Some of the “attempts” to use mutant powers (like Erik wrestling with the air before he masters his skill and Charles’ telepathic ability to overlay generic calming imagery over the edge of the screen) seem a little cheesy. Still, these are relatively minor problems in the grand scheme of things.

The movie makes great use of the period trappings. Everything is brighter, and the sixties were a great time for these comic book heroes. There’s something about the Kennedy era, with the threat of nuclear war, and man reaching for space, which seems to suit these sorts of creations. A similar “birth of superheroes” narrative set against the backdrop of the Kennedy era is Darwyn Cooke’s superb New Frontier, well worth a look.

Vaughn’s film is relatively subtle about it, but setting the film against the civil rights era gives the old metaphor some new credibility  – especially with references to the Communist witch hunts (with the Hellfire Club initially observed as a possible Communist association) and even sexism (“this is why women shouldn’t work at the CIA!” proclaims the senior official who threatens to bust a female operative back to the typing pool, while Shaw relies on Emma to fetch him drinks and men he wants to meet with). It’s a great setting, and I really hope Captain America: The First Avenger can use its backdrop half as well.

Bacon hams it up... but in a good way...

There are some minor pacing issues with the film. It seems like the movie attempts to cram far too much into is opening twenty minutes, giving us huge set pieces and confrontations and mini-character arcs, all rushing by and trying to fit everything into place. Indeed, it feels almost like the abandoned X-Men Origins: Magneto film has been condensed down and crammed into that opening sequence. The film really hits its stride once it settles down, though.

Shaw and the Hellfire Club don’t necessarily make for the most innovative of villains. After all, Shaw is preaching when we’d see Magneto planning for the entire trilogy. At this point, I’d almost like to see the X-Men tackle something that isn’t either a plot to exterminate mutants or a plot to exterminate humans by mutants, but I guess that’s kinda their niche. Kevin Bacon is having great fun in the role, and slimy characters are the actor’s forté, so it certain can’t go too far wrong. Besides, the movie is smart enough to focus on its two central protagonists, and a more colourful bunch of baddies might have distracted from it. Still, Bacon is having great fun, and it’s always a pleasure to see an actor take such delight in proclaiming, “wunderbar!”

Making a splash...

I thank that’s the real appeal of the movie’s “secret history” setting. Watching Shaw attempt to wipe out humanity is fairly basic supervillain stuff. It’s the kinda thing most baddies cut their teeth on. However, by putting the film in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it immediately becomes more fascinating and exciting. Just as watching the young proto-X-men bond while Green Onions plays on the background is somehow more interesting than your average character-building interlude. Indeed, even the vision of Shaw’s plan to exterminate homo sapiens seems a bit novel when rendered in sixties style.

There are some strange attempts to provide the movie with a literary context. In particular, while comparing the relationship between Shaw and Magneto to that between Frankenstein and his monster might sound like it gives the conflict some extra weight, it’s a rather muddled metaphor when mixed with the atomic age pop science of the piece. Magneto is a product of Shaw spiritually rather than literally, and it seems strange in a movie so dedicated to the dangers of science (riffing on atomic age paranoia) that the Frankenstein analogy applies to such a personal connection. In contrast however, the juxtaposition of Beast’s story with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde makes the character’s transformation scene all the more powerful in context.

So Vaughn’s made a good movie here. I actually want to see it again. More than that though, I actually want to see where he can take this particular series. If this film gave us the mutant story behind the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the sequel can show us the role that Charles and Erik played in Watergate or Vietnam. Rumour has it that Fox are considering using the movie as the launching point for a new trilogy, and I have to say that I’d be on board for it.

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15 Responses

  1. Very excited about this film. Thanks for the review.

  2. Excellent review, Darren. I know others have pointed out the Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King comparison with regard to the Charles and Erik characters (along with the 60s backdrop). I’m really looking forward to this one. Thanks for this.

    • The sixties setting really gives it context. I think though, and Vaughn is really clever, in that it’s not necessarily the context of Martin Luthor King where the movie rings truest, but in Kennedy’s lost New Frontier and the dream that was Camelot. Charles and Erik stand on the cusp of a potential paradise, but the audience knows that it will end in tears, much as any depiction of Kennedy becomes tragic because his death is such a key part of the myth.

  3. Wow. Really great review, Darren. I think you may have just convinced me to see this opening night.

  4. Your observation of Xavier’s motivations is interesting though. I think a lot of people might lose their identification with Charles if they seem him as a selfish playboy. Granted, it’s a much more human take on the character, but I wonder if people will like it.

    • I didn’t want to say it in the review, because it would diminish what Goldman and MacAvoy accomplished, but I really think Xavier’s character arc here reminds me of Tony Stark’s, only a mit less extreme. Tony was also a selfish entitled jerk, but he never wanted to help people. Xavier, for his arrogance and self-assuredness, genuinely wants to leave the world a better place. On the other hand, Xavier doesn’t undergo the emotional transformation that Tony does. Tony becomes a good person, with his arrogance and self-righteousness retained. Xavier instead learns that his approach won’t bring peace, but doesn’t change his worldview or attitude. He just changes his methods. He still believes the same things, but he won’t use the same methods (collaboration with the CIA, visible interference in world affairs) to accomplish them anytime soon.

      I think McAvoy is charming enough to pull it off, and a lot of Xavier’s cynicism is buried pretty beneath the surface.

  5. There’s also some minor subtext of homosexuality, if you ask the loud assholes in my theatre. Mostly in Havoc and Darwin.

  6. I enjoyed the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plot element to. I really thought there was some good charachter development in mystique and beast. I wish they would have paced it better but oh well. Anyway I posted more on this here http://fictionnerdnews.blogspot.com/2011/06/x-men-first-class-review.html

    • Yep, it seems to run, then walk, then sprint, then pause and then race to the finish. But I thought that was part of the fun.

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