Saturday, June 11, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: X-Men: First Class

The Other Half and I succumbed to summer movie marketing and went and saw X-Men: First Class in its opening weekend, at a matinée screening at the L.A. Live Regal Theaters. We had previously seen the earlier X-Men movies directed by openly gay Bryan Singer and we were curious to see how Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn would re-boot the franchise. I'm not as big a "Gay Geek" as Wonder Man (who is?) but I do remember collecting the X-Men comics briefly in the mid-1980s.

Overall, I was impressed with X-Men: First Class. The highlights for me were Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) as Magneto and the decision to set the film in the 1960s during the Cuban missile crisis. Fassbender is very easy on the eyes, and he's a good actor to boot. By placing most of the action in 1962, the director was able to distinguish this X-Men from the others and most recent super-hero films. Instead of the super-intelligent computers and futuristic gadgets that clutter most summer blockbusters this movie features retro styling and very un-sophisticated electronics. The heart of the film is in relationships, the three most notable are between Fassbender's Magneto and James McAvoy's Charles Xavier, Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique and Magneto and Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw. Bacon makes an excellent villain, and it is a generally accepted principle that the strength of a superhero entertainment can be measured by how effective the main villain is portrayed. The ongoing metaphor of mutant powers and sexual orientation (i.e. both of these are traits that you discover when a teenager, you may not share the trait with parents and you can be ostracized from society for actualizing the trait) is an incisive hook for a gay viewer like myself.

There are problems with the movie, however. For example, who the heck are these mutants? The "first class" of mutants to be educated and trained by Professor X feature a few that I was familiar with (Mystique, Beast and Banshee) but many more that I had no clue about (Havok, Darwin, Emma Frost). Emma Frost was controversially (among fan boys) played by Jennifer Jones of Mad Men fame, and although she looks amazing, her performance is a bit wooden. But at least she has lines to deliver, which is more can be said for Dr. Shawn's sidekicks Azazel and Riptide who have awesome powers (teleportation and wind control) but puny agents, because they are literally speechless. I was somewhat disappointed with McAvoy's Xavier because I thought he (but I concede it may be due to the script) did not do as an effective job as Fassbender did of displaying his character's motivations. It is very, very clear why Magneto is suspicious of collective efforts and humanity, in particular. It is not very clear why Professor X is so sure that he can work within the system to allow humankind and mutantkind to live and work together towards a common future.

One negative outcome of setting the movie in the early 1960s is that issues of race and gender are generally downplayed, or worse crop up in ways which discomfit those of us familiar with the 21st century. (SPOILER ALERT) Of course the first mutant to die in the movie ends up being one of the few Black ones, and the other (multiracial) mutant ends up on the side of Magneto, the putative future villain in the X-verse. The gender issues are even more problematic, with most women in the movie being shown scantily clad, even when they are given impressive mutant powers (c.f. Emma Frost). There's a reason these films look like they are designed with the viewpoint of a straight (white) 13-year-old boy in mind,despite the audience being a whole lot more experienced and diverse than that.

It will be interesting to see if they are able to make a sequel to X-Men: First Class. There are many, many great stories set in the X-Men universe (Dark Phoenix, anyone?) and hopefully, Vaughn will bring his fresh eye, and Fassbender and McAvoy to future depictions of these stories.

Title: X-Men: First Class.
Running Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.
Release Date: June 3, 2010.
Viewing Date: June 6, 2011.

Plot: B-.
Acting: A-.
Visuals: A-.
Impact: B+.

Overall Grade: B+ (3.333/4.0).

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