Saturday, June 04, 2011
Two summers ago, I was ready to proclaim Fox's X-Men movies "done, done, done." I've never been more happy to be proven wrong.
Following the well-trod paths of recent reboots like Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and Star Trek, all tasked with helping their respective brands reclaim past prestige after prior stumbles, X-Men: First Class, the fifth go at the eleven (!!) year old series, takes us back to the beginnings of Marvel's multitudinous mutant mythology. In mining the rich narrative vein of the fast friendship and bitter breakdown between eternal rivals Professor X and Magneto, it single-handedly rescues the franchise from the creative doldrums that crippled its recent entries
X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the prequel project marries the indy-honed storytelling sensibilities of director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick Ass) and the returned Bryan Singer -- producing this entry after directing the first two -- and hearkens back to the high point of Singer's 2003 sequel X2. Singer, you may recall, bolted from development on the third X-Men so he could head up Superman Returns for Warner Bros, little realizing how his decision would nearly scuttle both franchises. Superman received a chilly reception from audiences, while the Singer-free X-flicks did fine financially, but flailed creatively.
Thus, his return to X-country has the feeling of a longed-for homecoming, with his work here as co-scenarist giving a renewed dramatic weight to the proceedings that only makes more apparent what was sorely lacking in the last two go-rounds. Foregrounding character before spectacle (though it has its fair share of that -- this is still a summer blockbuster, after all), the film effectively utilizes its '60s setting in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the canvas upon which the larger-than-life struggle of opposing ideologies underlying the entire series -- pacifism vs. militancy, open hand vs. closed fist, however you want to frame them -- plays out.
Starting right where the original X-Men in 2000 did, down to a shot-for-shot redo of its first scene, film follows young Erik Lehnsherr, the boy who will be Magneto, as he is separated from his parents in Auschwitz in 1944 and first unleashes his mutant ability to manipulate metals. Growing into Michael Fassbender (who will in turn eventually grow into Ian McKellen), he spends his time tracking down and dispatching various Nazi war criminals across the globe.
Meanwhile, we also meet Charles Xavier (soon to possess Patrick Stewart's bald pate, but who can comfort himself with James McAvoy's mop of brown hair for now), whose telepathic abilities make him the most powerful mind on Earth, as well as its foremost expert on genetic mutation. When a request from the US government for his particular kind of expertise puts Xavier on the trail of a mutant mastermind (not be confused with the mutant Mastermind) named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) -- intent on orchestrating a nuclear war for his own devious ends -- who is also being sought by Lehnsherr, we know we don't have long to wait for a meeting of mind and magnetism.
There's a sense of anticipation coupled with the tiniest hint of dread as we watch these early scenes unfold, knowing not only how perfectly Xavier and Lehnsherr are matched with one another, but also the collision course that destiny has already charted for them. Witnessing the bond the two forge becomes a fascinating case study of nature vs. nurture. Had Erik been raised in the lap of luxury, and Charles suffered the horrors of Auschwitz, would they have still staked out opposing ideological turf? It's a philosophical question whose underpinnings gird the entire film, especially necessary since we already have a pretty good idea how the whole "Missile Crisis" thing turned out (spoiler: we made it).
Our involvement in the story would collapse completely if we didn't hold a stake in the Charles-Erik dynamic that informs every frame. Fassbender, whose charisma was apparent just from the trailers, delivers a career-defining turn here that will elevate him to the A-List as surely as the first X-Men did for Hugh Jackman (it's no knock on Jackman to say I didn't feel his absence here nearly as much as I thought I would).
Geek Wisdom was a meditation on the appeal of evil by way of Hannibal Lecter and Anakin Skywalker, where I reached the conclusion that part of us enjoys peering into the abyss to see just how close we can get without falling in. Erik's arc exemplifies that conceit, representing an impossibly magnetic (yeah, yeah, I know...) personality who spends most of the movie perched precariously on that razor-thin dividing line between good bad guy and bad good guy.
In many ways, Wolverine and Magneto fill very much the same role in these stories: the conflicted anti-hero who has to decide which of the two paths laid out before him to follow. We already know the choice Magneto will make, but seeing it here lends an added dimension to Wolverine's path in the original, demonstrating in one fell swoop the kind of prequel-sequel synergy that George Lucas couldn't find his way to in three visits to the pre-Star Wars well (okay, my requisite dig at the Star Wars prequels is out of the way).
While Fassbender is rightly deserving of the praise he's been garnering for his work here, I don't want to in any way undervalue McAvoy's essential contributions either. The Scottish actor, who I've been a fan of since his leading role in the underrated Sci-Fi (whoops, SyFy) miniseries Children of Dune in '03, has an almost harder task placed in front of him than Fassbender. His Xavier has to both ground the proceedings and also serve as the necessary straight man to the showier Magneto. But McAvoy does a nice job of giving him a playful twinkle while still laying the pipe for the saintly, pious figure embodied by Stewart.
In fact, strong performances are turned in across the board. Vaughn and Singer deserve much credit for the solid ensemble of mostly-unknowns they've assembled for their team of proto-X-Men, as well as familiar faces like Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, and Oliver Platt to populate smaller parts. Although the movie's timeline renders marquee mutants such as Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm off-limits, the filmmakers make do with a serviceable roster of second-tier heroes like Caleb Landry Jones' Banshee and Lucas Till's Havoc (technically Cyclops' younger brother in the comics but, y'know, whatever).
Also on the "good guy" side of the aisle (for now, anyway), Jennifer Lawrence is fine in the role of true blue shapeshifter Mystique that Rebecca Romijin played previously. Working in Lawrence's favor: she gets to play more of an emotional storyline than the character's fairly limited role in any of the previous films would have allowed. Nicholas Hoult also has some nice moments as introverted scientist Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer in The Last Stand), whose revulsion at his Beastly, ape-like feet ends up leaving him a little blue himself.
As for the villains, Bacon has more than enough presence to hold his own with Fassbender and McAvoy, making Shaw a compelling antagonist in his own right, and his stated goal of mutant domination offers a hint of Magneto himself in later/prior installments. The one weak link in the otherwise-excellent cast is the somnambulant January Jones as scantily-clad mutant temptress Emma Frost. Jones sleepwalks through the proceedings, playing Frost like a very-bored Betty Draper. Luckily, for us and the movie, there's propulsive power to the storytelling that keeps Jones from lingering long enough to be anything other than a mild annoyance.
Layered with small hints (some subtle, some not-so-subtle) explicitly situating the film within the cinematic universe that Singer inaugurated while explicitly overwriting the chronologies established by movies three and four, X-Men: First Class satisfies the goal of creatively righting this franchise beyond the most optimistic estimations, marking a from-the-ashes rebirth not unlike a certain fiery fowl of mythic (and mutant) significance. Not only is First Class the best X-Men yet, it's also the strongest comics-to-screen translation to hit theaters since The Dark Knight. X-ceptional company indeed. A