06 June 2011

MY LITTLE X-MEN

I don't know if something is wrong with me or with society, but when something I find so gruelingly antiseptic as X-Men: First Class can be met with more-or-less positive reviews from just about everybody, it's pretty clear that somewhere between me and the world is a fairly decisive and brutal disconnect. So now we have that out of the way.

The film is a prequel (or a "pre-boot" or whatever ghastly neologism they're using) to 2000's X-Men, the movie that got the contemporary superhero movie craze off the ground; it shares that film's greatest sin, which is that it spends too much time talking and not enough time doing. It also shares with that film Bryan Singer, who directed then and produces now, in addition to writing the story; unfortunately, First Class is more in keeping with the Bryan Singer who found a way to smother every last trace of joy from Superman Returns and not the one who reinvented the wheel with X-Men and X2, the latter of which remains one of the highlights of the subgenre. Then again, Singer didn't direct - Matthew Vaughn did, of the sleepy fantasy Stardust and the mean-spirited, hurtfully cynical Kick-Ass, so maybe it's fair just to blame him for everything.

Because, Christ, is First Class not a fun movie.* There was a scene that I really loved, involving a cameo by a beloved Marvel character not otherwise present in the film; there was another moment that made me guffaw - aye, dear reader, a guffaw - when a hulking concrete behemoth of a building was accompanied by the demure title card "Covert CIA Facility". My seatmate insisted that this must have been a deliberate gag (in whispers, of course - I am never one to ruin the experience of watching a movie for the other folks in the theater, even when it is as thoroughly pre-ruined as First Class), I felt it was not, and then a while later, there was the most stereotypical shot of Red Square that you could ever hope to see, blithely accompanied by the card "Moscow, Russia" at which point I conceded his point (incidentally, the movie has an absolute fixation on title cards: as though you might be unable to follow the thrust of the scintillating dialogue and not be completely aware of where we are, hence an aerial shot of a tropical island, following numerous onscreen and in-speech references to Cuba, is obligingly labeled "Cuba").

Other than that, the movie is an exercise in the ill-paced, the redundant, and the flat-out fucking boring. Set primarily in 1962, the plot concerns the young intellectual Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), blessed with a mutation that permits him to read minds, joining forces with embittered Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), also a mutant, with the ability to manipulate metal; together they gather up as many young mutants as they can find (apparently, now that it's the Atomic Age, these mutations are happening all over the place), under the aegis of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) and an unnamed man in black (Oliver Platt). These include not just Charles's childhood friend, the blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), but also a bright science geek with monstrous feet, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and other characters who are mostly interesting if you are an X-Men connoisseur, because Lord knows Vaughn and his squadron of co-writers don't do a god-damned thing to invest them with any personality to speak of, and the young actors in question are unable to do much of anything but mouth their lines and look generically attractive.

Against these mutant heroes stands wicked ex-Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a power-absorbing mutant with a desire to trigger World War III, thus eliminating all the normal humans and making the world safe for his fellow supermen; in this he is abetted by telepathic, diamond-skinned Emma Frost (January Jones), and repeat the bit I just put about no personalities for the others. Shaw's plot involves creating the Cuban Missile Crisis out of the simmering discontent of the Cold War, and our protagonists want to stop him for a number of reasons: because it's morally right, to prove that mutants are good people, too, and in Lensherr's case, because Shaw was the same man who murdered his mother in a concentration camp and forced the young boy to realise his latent powers as a mutant.

So it's not, strictly speaking, redundant with X-Men, filling in the basic framework of backstory shown in that movie (Erik wishes revenge on humanity for being treated as the scum of life, first as a Jew, then as a mutant; he and Charles were colleagues and friends before they were enemies) with some highly unexpected details. But redundant or not, I still don't know that there's all that much justification for this one; the whole thing feels like a 132-minute prologue to the scene where Erik and Charles, now using their more familiar names "Magneto" and "Professor X", part ways as antagonists, and this undoubtedly has much to do with how badly McAvoy and Fassbender manage to outclass each and every other actor, from the tolerably undernourished (Lawrence) to the unendurably hollow (Jones) - Fassbender manages even to do the unthinkable with his tormented, angry portrayal of a Holocaust survivor, and make me forget about Ian McKellen. That said, there is a healthy amount of spectacle, and it does in fact dazzle: the whole Cuban Missile Crisis sequence is quite an accomplishment of popcorn-movie poetics, with some of the niftiest cross-cutting I've seen in a big-budget action movie in a long while, with Magneto conducting the movement of dozens of projectiles like Stowkowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So it's not just the last scene that pricks the movie up to life.

That said, one good action sequence and two good performances do not a good movie make (oh, and good production design: Chris Seagars's sets evoke the totality of The Sixties more than they do 1962, but that just serves to lend the movie a certain mythic, out-of-time quality; I'll confess to not seeing even a trace of the James Bond influence in the visuals that everybody else seems so enamoured of). First Class, as much as it does anything, reveals the limitations of a superhero movie without terrible interesting characters, or indeed characters who fail to emerge from the general pile of goo into which all of the supporting figures tumble by movie's end. There aren't any stakes; we know from the other movies that the only well-defined characters who aren't villains live (Charles, Erik, Raven/Mystique), and that leaves all the minor figures as so much super-powered cannon fodder. This was precisely the problem that Singer's X-Men films avoided so extravagantly; every character, from the biggest role to the smallest, is crisp and clear and stands out. Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand managed to exactly reverse that, and First Class is more of the same, only with the addition of an unacceptably bloated running time that's filled with hardly any incident worth the watching (say what one will about The Last Stand, at least shit blew up with satisfying regularity). What little style crops up only serves to reinforce that Vaughn is not of his nature a stylist; the most self-consciously "arty" part of the whole movie is a deeply peculiar training montage that wields split-screens with the grace of an ogre lunging about with a cudgel.

I am sad. I was really hoping this would be the best superhero movie of the year; never in my darkest moments did I expect that it would turn out to be the worst X-Men movie (even more boring and idle than the staid Wolverine); enough to make Thor, which at least had ideas within its head even if they were clumsily expressed, look sprightly and sharp. Maybe I'm just extra-peevish because of extreme superhero movie fatigue, but if this is the best Hollywood can do with the subgenre, no wonder the films are starting to underperform at the box office!

4/10

NB: Cutting to the black mutant on the word "slavery": Ladies and gentlemen, Matthew Vaughn, king of good taste.

25 comments:

Jake said...

I can't agree that it's the worst of the bunch, but I'm not really on-board with the film, either. Half the time, it feels like "a very special episode" and the other half is so self-important it collapses. I'm so sick of these origin stories in which nothing happens until the climax, which feels like a total letdown. Iron Man got away with it because we got to see RDJ get out his id in a safe environment as if someone made a film into a methadone clinic, but Thor, this et al. feel totally perfunctory. Also, Vaughn just keeps getting more and more clueless with a camera. I totally forgot to mention that split-screen montage in my own review, which perplexes me as I dislike it so much while watching. It's abysmal and so self-conscious it might as well have been shot by one of these wafer-thin mutant teenagers.

I still think Fassbender and McAvoy, despite the sudden gear-shift into preaching at the end (how awkward were Fassbender's "brothers! sisters!" lines?), elevated the film, even if it mixed the inevitability of a prequel with the inevitability of history (even a parallel version such as this). Save for those two, the movie is totally forgettable.

Erik said...

Thank you. Thank you so much. I thought I was going crazy. I've been desperately refreshing your RSS all day, knowing that if you too gave this a 9/10, then that would be it, it would be over.

I knew you wouldn't let me down!

Tim said...

Jake- "Worst of the series" is probably the most indefensible thing I said (The Last Stand is really bad), but it just left me in such a sour mood, I felt the need to vent. And great point about RDJ.

Erik- Gosh, I'm flattered! I'm glad I decided to write this one first, before the Blockbuster History post

Jake said...

I understand your frustration, Tim; it has The Last Stand's convolution despite leading to a far simpler conclusion (we basically spend two hours waiting for someone to cripple Charles and for Erik to put on a shitting helmet). I don't know what's happening to people that tepid, color-by-numbers fare like Thor and this are making even people I respect lose their minds. In a year filled with Apichatpong, Abbas and Terrence (and even good mainstream stuff like Hanna and Rango), are we really that hard up for entertainment that these are movies not simply to enjoy but lavish praise upon?

Rebecca said...

Maybe it's just me drinking the sand but I really enjoyed this movie. There were definite plot holes and GAPING timeline holes if we're to believe these people grew up to be the same people of X-Men (and apparently timeline issues with the comic as well, but I only know that because of internet complaints). But I found that for a number of reasons I was able to forgive the holes fairly easily (those reasons mainly being named James and Michael and the fact that I wasn't wishing I had hours of my life back like after building and screening multiple prints of X3).

Jake said...

James and Michael are two good reasons to forgive things. For an hour and a half, I was about ready to give the whole thing a pass for them alone. McAvoy had a harder time, if only because Charles was haphazardly written, but Fassbender was note-perfect until he had to start proselytizing at the end.

Ryan said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the bad prosthetic job that was done to realize Nicholas Hoult's post-transformation Beast.

The.Watcher said...

I loved this movie, I was sober and not tired. 8.5/10. But I'm not surprised that you didn't like it - you didn't like Kick-Ass, either, which I loved the crap out of.

Rick said...

No, I agree w/Tim: Kick-Ass was dreadful, and X-Men: First Class as I wrote in my review, is far too long a film for the story it's NOT telling. With four screenwriters (and two credited w/the story), how was it that no one ever bothered to give us even the names of some of the mutants? As someone who didn't read comic books, how would I know who these characters are?

At the end, when people in the audience applauded, I turned to my friend and said, "Well, audiences are easily pleased". I don't think it was the worse X-Men film (Wolverine still holds that title) but I found nothing to applaud save McAvoy and Fassbender. Then again, I rarely think they can do wrong...

Mysterious F. said...

Just for laughs, Tim, you should read the troll comments that are starting to show on your RT page for this review. One of them called you an "emo kid."

Tim said...

A what?!

Martyn Wendell said...

Tim,

I also thought I was going insane when the reviews started coming back positive, and I was afraid that you would join the swelling chorus of praise. Thank you so, so much for going against the critical grain, and for reassuring your readers who hated this movie that they are not alone or crazy. Gah!

Marty

P.S. I love your blog and read it all the time; my roommate and I always anticipate your reviews and prefer to read them before going out to see new movies.

Lucas said...

Re: "emo kid," I think maybe "Ryan N." doesn't recognize a certain still from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Which is shocking, obviously.

Tim said...

I really wish I could get that still replaced. I don't know how it got there, and I've e-mailed a couple of times about it to no avail. But at least it's from the best movie ever made.

Bryce Wilson said...

It was almost worth the price of admission to hear a movie use the line "My Legs. I Can't Feel My Legs." unironically. It's been a long while.

I like a Matthew Vaughn quite a bit better than you, and I found enough enjoyable moments in this to keep me from feeling completely ripped off. But I couldn't keep from thinking "Yep this was certainly a movie that came out less than a year after it was announced."

Did enjoy the Bacon though.

Mysterious F. said...

A lot of RT critics have screenshots from random movies as their profile pictures now. One of them even has Donald Duck. It's kind of weird. Oh well, The Passion of Joan of Arc is as good of a choice as any for a screenshot.

I'm also a fan, and I began reading your blog during your Disney retrospective. I like you a lot more than most "certified" (whatever that means) critics, and I enjoy your horror retrospectives a lot. Keep up the great work.

Oh, and that "emo kid" comment is still kind of hilarious.

LL said...

Finally, someone willing to admit this movie is overrated. I actually enjoyed Thor more, because at least it knew it's limits and kept things entertain9ng throughout. X-Men:First Class a boring slog, until the end sequence, when Erik finally embraces his bad-ass nature. All the other 'X-Men' were barely there and given little to do, but demonstrate their lame powers. And how does January Jones keep getting work? She played Emma Frost like a zoned out college girl. Ugh! If not for Fassbender's amazing performance and the lovely Rose Byrne, this would have been a waste

dfa said...

"I don't know if something is wrong with me or with society." Thanks for typing that; if more people did there would be less wrong with society. About the film, too bad, I always liked the M.L. King vs. Malcolm X thing.

Ryan said...

For the record, Tim, I'm not "Ryan N" from Rotten Tomatoes.

javi75 said...

I haven't seen this movie, but wanted to make a few comments.

As someone else alerady commented about this, I hate "origin movies" too. I find them boring to the extreme. Origins should be taken for granted, just providing enough clues (many ways in which this can be done).

If people applauded at the end of this (also as described in previous comments), I have a theory it's because fans tend to feel easily satisfied by this prequel things. They already know what's going to happen story-wise, so if the movie provides exactly that, expectations are not shattered. It feels like the movie did its job. You may be thinking about the Star Wars prequels now. Well, even with those, most people has nice things to say about the third one, and I believe it's mostly because it's the one where things get tied up at the end, in the expected manner, leading the way to the other three movies that everyone in the audience already knew. As I said, it feels satisfactory. I believe it's the same effect that "whudunit"-s produce, when everything gets explained at the end and all fits.

Regarding this movie, all I've seen are the tv-spots and it seems to have a "clean" look (befitting the 60's design I guess) halfway between live-action and animation. The cgi effects certainly look too much like an animated cgi movie rather than photorealistic live action (the submarine in the air that the tv-spots focus so much on). I like the look but at the same time it eliminates all the dazzlement from it. If it doesn't look realistic I don't feel the wow factor of sheer spectacle of action movies that I used to like.

fine_toon said...

While I can empathize with your bemusement over the disparity in opinion between yourself and the public (I hated Inception), I don't appreciate your cynical, smart-assy approach to First Class. It's like you had already made up your mind not to like it. Judging by your criticism, so much of the story seemed to just go right over your head.

The only thing that I will agree on is that Ratner reversed the successful direction of Singer's well-crafted X-Men franchise. But it is beyond me how anyone can even try to compare Last Stand to First Class. The latter is a far, FAR better movie.

The fact that you seem to actually prefer Thor to First Class, well, that pretty much says it all for me. I thought that Thor was a life-less, soul-less dud of a movie, while First Class was able to genuinely tap into the pathos that has been missing from so many comic book movies, AND it had a hell of a lot more action! Is First Class a perfect movie? No. But it has real heart, as well as some stellar acting and directing.

Caleb said...

I enjoyed it. I went into First Class expecting a flashy summer popcorn spectacle intended as little more than a masturbatory "fans-only" backdrop to the series, and that's exactly what I got. It was fun, it was stupid, and it was worth my price of admission insofar as that it made for an entertaining evening with my younger brothers (including the requisite heaping-upon of praise and damnation for its particularities immediately after the viewing).

None of which I can say for the last two X-men films, which were worse than torturous and left me feeling robbed of my time and a ten dollar bill.

Caleb said...

Besides, I felt that at heart - despite some rather gruesome and/or sensual scenes - it was a kid's movie. And sometimes my inner child just craves candy, not crème brûlée.

Amanda said...

Honestly, all I needed to see was January Jones playing Emma Frost to know that First Class wasn't going to pass muster. Fassbender and McAvoy alone were not enough to make up for the agony that was watching Jones attempt to act. Jennifer Lawrence, too, was lackluster, and after enjoying the raw vulnerability she pulled off in Winter's Bone, I was looking forward to seeing some of that in her take on Mystique. The make-up was apparently too much for her; she just disappeared under it.

The rest of my disappointment really had to do with the film's tone. The entire film, I kept waiting for that touch of darkness, that melancholic draw that X1 and X2 had, to come into play. And there were moments of it-- namely all those in which Fassbender had control-- but they were fleeting and in comparison to the rest of the film. . . well, it's already been said here numerous enough times. I'm with you on this on this one completely, disappointed and underwhelmed.

Poopsie said...

It's good to see a well written bash for this movie. It's curious how many good reviews this movie received for how badly they screwed the pooch. A huge turn off for me were the special effects, which is depressing. What is the point of an X-Men movie if it delivers half-ass eye candy? Frost's crystal form looked like crap, Beast looked atrocious. Banshee flying in the air looked fucking retarded. Mutant and proud! Hammer, meet nail.