Wednesday, June 29, 2011

X-men: First Class; So Disappointing

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

A few weeks ago, Audumla and I took the little nerdlet to the local drive-in for a double feature. The first film was Kung Fu Panda 2, which--despite not being named The Kaboom of Doom as it was long rumored--was a capable sequel and thoroughly enjoyable. The second film, X-Men: First Class, however, was about what I expected. Which is not very good, as you're about to find out.

Expectations 'Odor': After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, my expectations for this film were so slight they were measured in micrometers. The first X-Men film was pretty rough, but as it was a breath of fresh air in a movie genre sullied by Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, people didn't notice or didn't care. X2 did everything that the first movie did, only it did it better, more often, and injected Wolverine with more of his traditional 'whatever, bub' attitude (Wolverine is the Liam Lynch of the Marvel Universe). But the following two movies turned the Marvel mutants into something crassly stupid and reduced their action scenes to formulaic sequences where they constantly threw underwhelming special effects at the audience while under-emphasizing the few enjoyable moments of conventional fighting. Not to mention the terrible subtext.

And now they were going to make a reboot, set in the 60's, featuring all the angst of turning the dynamic mentor figures from the first trilogy into a couple of college-age whiners. And there's no Wolverine, so the action sequences would be pure CGI offense to the senses without the relief of simply stabbing a bad guy every once in a while.

Then I saw the first trailer, which revealed that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender would be playing Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, respectively. McAvoy was fabulous in Children of Dune and ShakespeaRe-told, and I loved Michael Fassbender in Centurion. Fassbender was also the highlight of A Bear Named Winnie. Seeing these two great actors play off of each other as they draw up the lines of battle that would define the mutant struggle in the Marvel Universe would be epic and gripping, and hopefully increase Fassbender's household recognition--he deserves it.

Appreciation 'Beef': Well, X-Men: First Class was certainly a mixed experience. On the one hand, great acting performances turned in by the principals made for some enjoyable moments, but the writing, pacing, and canned action sequences were painfully executed.

The opening of the movie invokes the Nazi sequence at the beginning of X-Men, and uses that to introduce the primary antagonist: Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon. Shaw makes the mistake of ticking off a young Erik Lehnsherr, and the movie quickly moves ahead a few decades to show the proto-Magneto as an adult flushing out Nazis in South America in his search for Shaw and revenge. This is extremely well-done--the movie could have had an understated beauty in its revenge tale if it would've focused on Fassbender fleshing out his cold-blooded hunt. But instead, we get Xavier et al as the story becomes one big tangent from its most interesting plot thread.

Kevin Bacon makes a great antagonist, and he barely features in any of the film's promotional material, which is a shame. He pulls off the mad-thinker role well, and the way he looks positively amused when Erik first comes to try to kill him is thoroughly engrossing. James McAvoy also does very well in his role, but he has the tallest order of all: he has to play the consummate father-figure and mentor in the midst of a selfish, unethical, douche phase. In his second scene of the film, Xavier is running through a soulfully over-practised line about how mutation is sexy--all to get into some heterochromia iridum chick's pants. Raven--blue-skinned shape-changing Mystique, and tied for most shrilly pointless character in the movie--interposes herself in the moment, mainly to illustrate how she has a confused sense of what Xavier views as their purely brother-sister relationship. And, while Xavier is a more interesting character than indicated by that scene, Mystique never transcends the sheer idiocy of her character and the uselessly shallow impact she has on the movie's themes of 'mutant and proud'--which she says three times throughout the movie with all the panache of a talking billboard.

There's really not much more that's admirable about the movie, though. The action sequences are, for the most part, one-sided affairs consisting of one side slaughtering the other. There's not much sense of peril, since the only characters who are mortal according to the plot's demands (ie, aren't already well-known characters who must survive the reboot) are so trivially under-developed you almost want them to die just so they can contribute to the movie's fading plausibility. The primary theme of the movie is the same badly realized string that every mutant movie so far has been plucking, only this time the movie seems to feel self-important in doing so as if it's the first movie to try to label mutants as your generic minority--which is and always has been stupid.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Despite the gems, X-Men: First Class ultimately felt like watching a bunch of friends get hammered and run around a hotel lobby: I had some moments of genuinely enjoying what's going on, but most of it was in a detached, ironic sense, and I certainly didn't want to be associated with them when the night's over.

Why do I feel I have to distance myself from this super-powered dung heap? Because I'm a Marvel fan, and, despite my affection for the Uncanny X-Men cartoons of the nineties, I have a hard time figuring why I tolerate the short-sightedness of the mutants in the Marvel Universe. Any symbolic invocation of mutants as the generic minority is quickly rendered either moot or bigoted in its extremism. Mutants are supposed to be the next stage of human evolution, according to the crabbed science of the comics and movies. So their status as a minority can only last for a handful of generations before they begin to rival the majority of humanity, especially when you consider that in Marvel canon the mutant population has essentially exploded since World War II. Their genetic superiority is invoked constantly in the movies, and First Class is no exception. But the race-conflict angle is moot when there are no well-developed non-mutant characters, and the ones we do see are mindless cogs in a big fear machine. In a major crime against the source material, Moira MacTaggert--one of the most important humans in Charles Xavier's life--is just such another cog in the mundane mechanism of 'homo inferior'. But when the villain is a mutant, his goons are mutants, the government is largely ignorant that mutants even exist, and the only mundanes are viciously swept under the rug by bad writing, there's really nothing to say about hatred or prejudice.

Not to mention that Xavier, while too much of a gentleman to ever read Raven's mind, has no qualms about using his Kenobi schtick to get his government program easily approved. Or that one of his first significant uses of his own powers in the movie consists of tracking down other mutants across the country, violating their rights to privacy and risking outing them as mutants. If you then factor in that many mutants in the movies and the comics are predisposed toward violence, destruction, and general insanity due to the fact that many of their powers are only manifested in violent or combative ways, and you have a disturbingly hateful symbol of whatever minority your theme is trying to invoke. Mutant stories would be much more interesting if they actually treated mutant interactions as something altogether new, but the fact that unimaginative writers keep using it as a socio-political stand-in just makes them vain and needlessly conflicted and convoluted. I mean certain mutants are destined, from the birthright of their powers, to be more important, more influential, and more powerful than others. Xavier and Magneto, for instance, could never be someone's minions--they're too powerful, their powers too all-reaching. Nor could Wolverine ever rise to a position of social prominence in the mutant community--the sheer number of times he's been used as a tool for greater mutants spells that out clearly enough. This tyrant vein in the setting should rankle in creators' collective noses enough that they give up this bad symbolism tactic.

"Despite the gems, X-Men: First Class ultimately felt like watching a bunch of friends get hammered and run around a hotel lobby"

But my qualms with the movie go beyond the symbolic problems inherent to mutant story-telling. They could've told a much better story without rolling in the sty of bad superhero conventions that litter the film. One of the worst offenses in this field? They actually have a moment when all the main characters sit down and say something along the lines of:

"Say, we should have codenames. I call Mystique!"

"Lame, I wanted to be called Mystique, since I blow crap up with my solar-powered hip gesticulations. And that's, you know, totally mysterious."

"Well, sucks to your auntie. I'm Mystique, because everyone knows who I am already."

"I'll be called Darwin, because--"

"Shut up, you'll be dead in fourteen minutes anyways."

It's really that bad. Now, every superhero needs to get past the hurdle of why they would adopt a formal name for a secret identity, and other movies in the past few years have all done better jobs of addressing the issue. In Iron Man, it's a glory-grabbing nomer taken from headlines that Tony assumes purely because of it's spectacle. In Batman, it's out of the desire to become a totalitarian symbol of vigilante-ism, which you can't do without a name with pizzaz. In First Class, it's because these brats get bored and don't want their real names on their undeserved government paychecks.

They have a pillow fight in the next scene.

And the crime goes on from there. Virtually every character gets that 'wow, you can do what?' introduction to their powers--even the ones who have laughably stupid powers. The shape-shifter, for instance, looks on in awe and smirks with bizarre bloobie-lust as Hank McCoy takes off his shoes and showcases his hands-feet as his flips around to hang from a bar upside down. Mystique could totally rip off Hank's power by transforming her feet to be like his, she just doesn't do that because it would throw off her slinky posture--why in the sphincter of Hell would she be impressed by that? Or take Banshee, who is awesome because he can focus his screams into a physically impossible generic force that he uses to attack others or fly, and is compared to Angel, a girl with bug wings who can fly and fling napalm at her enemies. Banshee can do one thing or the other, but if he tries both at once he generally fails--why doesn't Angel rub his face in the fact that she can do both better than him simultaneously?

Banshee brings up the stupidity of the power progression of the story, too. In teaching him how to fly, they tell him to wear a flying squirrel suit and jump out a window screaming at the ground. This is step one, and it fails for a cheap laugh that doesn't show him getting any broken ribs. Xavier's amendment to the training regimen? He puts Banshee at the top of a taller object, even though the poor dupe is clearly stuffing his pants at the thought. After Iron Man and Spider-Man, both of which have excellent handling of the progression of learning to use their powers, First Class has no excuse to make something so clumsily done and downright lunatic.

And, as an obnoxious bookend, we have the ridiculous stupidity of the film's blue mutants: Hank McCoy and Raven the exhibitionist. Hank's character in the comics is obsessed with overcoming the nature of his mutation--it's a degenerative state that manifests not only as further physical deformity into a blue-furred Quasimoto, but also as a predilection towards bestial, illogical behavior. His mutation is a disease to him. It's the Alzheimer's of the mutant world--his very brilliance is all the more remarkable because he has to fight to maintain clinical thought. In the movie, he's pissed because he has to hide his funky feet. Apparently, the mutant genius would much rather galavant around the hangar in his bare feet, but society's cruel stricture that feet should be different from hands prevents him from living a happy life. Gee whiz. Then, because he tries to fix his feet with a bubbly potion rather than, you know, reconstructive surgery or something logical, he accidentally turns himself into the blue wolfman from the comics. Really, Beast?


Raven, on the other hand, seems to resent the fact that society forces people to wear clothes. Never does anyone actually oppress her or make her feel wierd on screen for having indigo leprosy--Charles Xavier does, however, tell her to put something on when she shows off her blue lumpy bits to the world. This, of course, stems from anti-bloobie prejudice and not the human more that you should not show off your jiggly bits to your brother/professor. This also puts me in the mind to complain that shapeshifting in the comics and movies is totally magical and cannot be defined by any scientific means. Throughout the franchise, Mystique regularly transforms from naked blue form to some other clothed form. She strips, has her clothes peeled off, and so on, without ever screaming: "ow, that's my shape-shifted skin, idiot!" Therefore, some magical force clearly wants her to be able to get slutty without actually having any transition or cost to do so. This force is called testosterone, and it is indeed magical. It is the same force that makes chainmail bikinis good substitutes for a cuirass in fantasy art. It is magical, true, but it is also dumb.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': So who will enjoy X-Men: First Class? A very small sliver of comic book fans, I'd imagine. You'd have to love the source comics unabashedly without yearning to see them rise above their campy, illogical trappings. But you'd also have to be prepared for this piece of cinema to aggressively chew up and spit out the comics, as the shoe-horning of certain themes and elements--such as Beast's degenerative transformation--is downright destructive towards the original meaning.

For those who aren't already ingratiated into the genre, I find it hard to imagine what they would enjoy in X-Men: First Class. There's a solid dramatic vein in the first act that you lose once the movie slips into the litany of mutant introductions, but perhaps the precious classy acting from McAvoy, Fassbender, and Bacon will be enough to hook mundanes.

But probably not.

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