Tuesday, June 7, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)

Hardly a compliment to say X-Men: First Class is a better film than X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which may be a different franchise entirely?  What happened to X-Men Origins: Magneto?), if anything it's a wonder Fox botched the franchise so badly.  They let Brett Ratner implode the universe beyond any recognition and, worse, let Bryan Singer walk away from it not once but twice.  What we are left with in First Class has been considered a reboot, is likely a compromise, but most clearly resembles a patchwork of decent ideas badly re-written several times.  Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn has proven kinetic genre chops, but the film can't overcome its crutch of a script.

One can only imagine what Singer intended for the proposed X-Men Origins: Magneto film, but Vaughn's opening scenes aren't a bad alternative.  The pulp of the Polish ghetto and Erik Lehnsherr's subsequent hunt down of Nazi conspirators in Argentina read like a rapturously enthusiastic prepubescent Inglourious Basterds.  It's frenetic in a way that respects the genre without taking it so seriously that it chokes itself out.  One almost respects the economy of the slipshod introductory scenes between Xavier and Raven; like his treatment of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Vaughn exhibits an understanding of carefree youth before the screenplay's six writers demand they begin trying to talk like grown-ups (and worse in the case of Hank McCoy, angsty adolescents). 
How The Grinch Stalled Khrushchev

What stuck after the wringer of rewrites weren't (still, often trite) gems of the pain of responsibility and sacrifice with a strict adherence to narrative continuity from the franchise's watermark X2, but easy jokes for a knowing audience that aren't interested in much of a back-story because the film is never comfortable living in the past.  What we get, instead is well-worn sentiments about self-acceptance and a handful of self-referential jokes (including Xavier suggesting he may bald and a Hugh Jackman cameo that brought the house down).  For a franchise already too dependent on character familiarity and sweeping statements in place of true development, First Class becomes a parody of itself as the films become the joking source material.  The writers treat the audience as if the only thing interesting in an origins story is how the characters got their names ("I think I got a new name for ya:  'Beast'", "We're still g-men, just without the 'g'"/"No, you're your own team now.  It's better.  You're... X-Men.")

For a movie that markets itself on the recent success of the genre's historical reimaginings, First Class fails to be as interesting as the mere prologues of Watchmen and even Wolverine.  It selects the Cuban Missile Crisis as its crux, but assumes tension rather than constructing it.  A missile is redirected, blowing up a Russian tanker threatening to cross a blockade and some smarmy humans kinda high-five each other.  The only performance through which we believe there are any stakes is that of John F. Kennedy.  Worse, the film should serve as the relational bedrock for the lifelong mutual respect between Professor X and Magneto, but the script spends so much time between lesser soap opera pairings (Raven/McCoy, Lehnsherr/Raven) driving home the obvious point of feeling comfortable in your own skin that a brotherhood is never forged.  The film relies on what we already know about the characters (through both the X-Men mythology and the films') to cover its failure of any character development outside of Michael Fassbender's winning performance.

Any praise due the film goes to the eye of Vaughn whose visual style shines through at times despite his obvious lack of elbow room behind the camera.  Not only did Vaughn inherit problems to rile fanboy fodder (how is an omni-powerful villain killed so easily by something that made him powerful every previous time?), but was forced to use more uninteresting characters than anyone would know what to do with.  The film is bogged down by a script of low-bar hokum and undefendable running time in a dish that reeks of too many cooks on both sides of the camera. -- **/four stars

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