Movie Review: X-Men – First Class

There’s been quite a bit of consternation about this movie from the geek community over the last year, despite it being directed by current director du jour of comic book films, Matthew Vaughn. “It’s being rushed!” you say. “It won’t fit into continuity” you say. “I won’t watch an X-Men movie without Hugh Jackman naked”, you say.

I’m pleased to tell you that your fears have been alleviated. X-Men First Class is a worthy successor to the X-Men film franchise as done by 20th Century Fox, in that it’s an overly simplistic, mindlessly silly piece of mediocre entertainment.  And not in a good way.

This is getting some rave reviews, and I’ve spent much of the weekend trying to figure out why. Is it the “blink and you’ll miss it” breakneck pace of the script, that adds more exposition than the book of Exodus yet doesn’t give us a chance to actually learn anything about any of the characters except for their name and power? And in a few cases not even that much? Or is it the mediocre script that hides its failings by tying the whole mess to the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or is it the overly clever way it clumsily foreshadows events we’ve seen in previous X-men films? Or maybe it’s just the soulless, dead eyes of January Jones? Probably a combo of them all.

What I didn’t like: 

The script –  There seems to be some debate as to who actually wrote this script, but I’m not sure why, as I’m not sure why anybody would actually want to take credit for it. There are some good things about this script from a technical standpoint. It accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to in regards to plot points: A group of superhumans brought together by a brilliant mutant named Charles Xavier, attempt to stop a rogue mutant named Sebastien Shaw in his attempt to bring about nuclear holocaust. Ok. Mission accomplished. The script gets the job done, in that it lays out the plot relatively well, and also introduces the characters in an effective, though quick and clumsy manner. What it doesn’t do is to give us any reason to care about ANY of these characters except for two: Mystique, and Magneto.

Kevin Bacon, wondering exactly how his once stellar career went so wrong.

They are the only 2 characters that have any depth at all, but even they have their limitations. Magneto’s is that while are given more than ample reason why he would want to kill the main villain of the piece himself, we are NOT given anything more than that, and the final choices he makes seem to come out of almost nowhere. Mystique is probably the most fully realized character in the piece, but she is held back by the Portman-As-Padme-esque vacant stare of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence seems determined to prove that her fantastic performance in last year’s phenomenal Winter’s Bone was nothing more than a fluke, though to be fair she doesn’t have much to work with in the way of dialogue.

The rest of the characters are given such short shift, that their very inclusion is little more than a distraction. Although much time is given to fully explain each of our new mutant’s powers, none is given to actually giving any of these people a reason for being there in the first place. For example: Would a black taxi-driver in 1961 really decide that it would be a great idea to voluntarily move to a secret US government facility without anyone knowing about it? And why would a stripper decide to betray the only people who actually accept her for who she is after a 3 sentence pitch from a complete stranger? X-Men First Class is hoping that you’re too excited about getting to see another X-Men movie to want to know the answers to these, and numerous other questions that the movie provokes (Why exactly is Sebastien Shaw trying to cause a nuclear holocaust when he has absolutely no proof that that would create more mutants? Would Charles Xavier’s parents really be ok with him adopting a naked 12-year-old blue girl? And who the frak thought that the makeup job on Hank McCoy was a good idea?)

The biggest problem here is that the film attempts to cram 2 or 3 movies into one. There isn’t much wrong here that another hour or two of proper set up and character building couldn’t have fixed. The one positive comment about the script that I will make is that the many changes it makes in X-Men continuity are good ones that serve the film well, and tie into the existing franchise far better than I would have thought possible. Some fans might be up in arms over the minor cosmetic changes that Vaughn and company made to the history of the X-Men, but not me.

 The acting – Much attention is being given to the performances of Michael Fassbender as Magneto, James McAvoy as Xavier, and Kevin Bacon as Sebastien Shaw. And they do a serviceable job with the poor material that they’re given. But any success they have on the screen is completely negated by the film-destroying anti-charisma of January Jones. Like a beautiful black hole, she threatens to suck any and or all joy out of every scene she’s in. To be fair, she plays the role of Emma Frost exactly like she plays the role of Betty Draper, but without the benefit of a good supporting cast or great script. Sadly, the clumsiness of the script pretty much prohibits any real acting talent from breaking through here.

I know, I’m being harsh. This isn’t Phantom Menace bad, or Transformers 2 bad. In fact, it’s not even close. Probably the biggest disappointment here isn’t that it’s a bad movie, but that it really wouldn’t have been very much effort at all to transform this into a good movie. But then again, this was produced by Fox, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Though this was a mis-step for Matthew Vaughn, it was a relatively small one, and I’m confident that once he sinks his teeth into something with far less studio intervention, and a little more meat, he’ll be fine. I wish I could say the same for the X-Men franchise.

Rating: C-

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011: A brief interlude to discuss superhero comic books

When I started this blogging project, the idea was to talk about how my tastes have changed over the years, and how my changing tastes may be influencing my feelings towards comics I loved when I was younger. I’ve kind of gotten away from that a bit, and changed it into a history/overview of popular characters.

So I thought I should take a second to let you know how I’m feeling about superhero comics right now.

I hate them.

Well, maybe hate is a strong word. As I’m doing my culling, I’m still going out every Wednesday and buying new graphic novels, and I find that I’m getting far more

Superman. I'm pretty sick of him right about now.

satisfaction from reading books like Northlanders, Acme Novelty Library, Two Generals, or Grandville Mon Amour, than I do from MOST of the superhero stuff that I’m rereading. So why am I keeping so much? I think a big part of it is familiarity. It’s comfortable to read a Batman comic where you know who all the players are, know the kind of the story you’re going to get, and also know that eventually Batman is going to win in the end. Or be hurtled through time while his protegé fills in for him, only to come back but for some reason announce to the world that Bruce Wayne is funding Batman even though that would just open up any businessman to a billion lawsuits and also make people start to wonder if Bruce Wayne really IS Batman after all? One or the other.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still superhero comics being put out that I enjoy, and I will ALWAYS love superhero mythology. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, Gail Simone’s Birds of

If you HAVE to read a superhero comic, why not make it one that isn't horrible?

Prey and Secret Six, Roger Langridges’ Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Superman: Secret Origin, and Jeff Parker’s Atlas are all fun and interesting, and totally worth your time. Other recent superhero titles such as J.M. DeMattheis’ Savior 28 or John Arcudi’s A God Somewhere attempt to push the envelope as to how modern societal complexities can be tied into the superhero genre, and are the equal of any of the pretentious European bullshit that I love so much these days in terms of emotional resonance.

I’m finding that as I go, my tolerance for “just ok” stories is waning. I’m definitely starting to cull more, and once I’m done rereading my entire collection (based on my current rate of consumption, I’m predicting that I’ll be done in May or June), I think I’ll probably go back and cull some previous keeps. I also expect to cull a lot more Marvel than I did DC for some reason, though we’ll see how that goes when I get to it. For those of you who care about such things (i.e. my wife), I’m actually currently almost done DC in terms of reading, though I’m still only in the J’s when it comes to writing about the project. Next will be Marvel. Then the really big part, which is my “indie” section. It’s sorted by writer, and includes everything from Vertigo books to indie autobiographies, and so-on.

I do think age has something to do with it. As you get older, its natural for most people to want their entertainment to evolve as they do. But because the North American comic

The X-Men. Things happen to them every month that you are expected to blindly care about.

market has such a fixation with superhero comics, the publishers constantly pump out books that kids can at the very least not be offended by, and tend to err on the side of caution when it comes pushing any type of storytelling barriers. Superhero comics HAVE grown up to a certain extent, and now deal with themes such as death, sexuality, and politics in ways that mainstream comics of 60’s, 70’s, and early ’80’s never could. But they still cater to an audience that wants it’s storylines wrapped up in a tight little bow. Not to mention that both DC and Marvel are owned by major media companies that will never willingly push the envelope when it comes to content when a bit of judicious censorship will do the trick. And while you often read posts in blogs and articles by comic book fans complaining about how they wish superhero comics could go back to the way they used to be, the sales don’t back them up, and even the most critically acclaimed books that cater to younger readers don’t last very long. That’s fine, if your sales are strong in other areas. But even the sales of top comic books (Batman, X-Men) are decreasing every year, and so the comic book companies find themselves placating an increasingly shrinking fan base, with no real strategy for attracting new readers. So if you’re a comic reader in your mid 30’s and you are finding yourself increasing dissatisfied with the superhero tripe you are reading, you have two options: You either broaden your horizons, and try new comics that don’t necessarily have tights or guns in them, or you quit all together. Sadly, most people are taking the latter option.

So what’s my point?

I guess my point is this: There are good superhero comics out there. Just like there are good action movies and good fantasy novels. But limiting your entertainment

A book I'd rather be reading than more "Justice Society"

consumption to one or two genres is like only eating cheese. It’ll taste good for a while, but soon your urine will start to turn orange and then your liver will burst. So if you find yourself discouraged by DC’s latest “We actually came up with a good idea that should have lasted 7 issues but because they sold well we decided to extend it to 107 issues through 30 titles and you REALLY NEED to own every one” cash grab, or Marvel’s latest “Character X just died in a thrilling 10 part cross-over that you really need to buy every issue of even though we all know that we’re just going to bring them back next year when sales are soft again” remember that superhero comics are only a very small part of what’s out there.

Next up: More superheroes!