Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director Matthew Vaughan tries to breathe new life into the X-Men film series by adding heavy doses of Mad Men and James Bond sprinkled with bits of Cuban Missile Crisis and a dollop of Star Trek prequel/reboot trendiness.

The story is set in 1962. This already sets us on shaky ground because the series has already established that the X-Men operate in the present, which means that some of the characters would need Zimmer frames by now.  Anyway, the plot revolves around mutant superheroes Charles Xavier (AKA Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) as they join forces to battle the evil mutant Sebastian Shaw in his Blofeldesque plan to start an evil nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union because it's a really evil thing to do.  Unable to defeat Shaw and his mutant gang on their own, they recruit their own mutants who will one day become the X-Men and Magneto's villainous Mutant Brotherhood.

This is one of those films that you sort of like the first time, but on second viewing you start to loathe it. Vaughan manages to achieve inserting a certain degree of freshness into a plot we've already seen three times and his Marvel Comic's version of the 1960s, despite its anachronisms, is a happy change from Spandex, dark rooms and people staring at computer flatscreens.  The 1960s is also the only historical period that Hollywood doesn't try to lumber with a muted colour palette dipped in sepia, so it looks like the same planet the rest of us inhabit.  Unfortunately, he also takes unconscionable liberties with history by claiming that there was a moral equivalence in the Cuban Missile Crisis and that the United States was the aggressor for basing missiles in Turkey and the Communists merely responding.  This is news to historians because the crisis was due to the Communists having a massive strategic disadvantage to the United states in 1962.  Unable to attack the American mainland with their modest stockpile of ICBMs, the Soviets hit on the idea of sticking their medium range missiles in Castro's Cuba where they could plaster the American East Coast.  The American missiles that were withdrawn from Turkey after the crisis was resolved (That is, the Communists backed down and withdrew their weapons) were merely a bone thrown to the Soviets.  The Communists hadn't any choice since they'd been revealed as trying to bluff the US with an empty gun.  If it came to war, they'd have lost.

Still, this attitude on the part of Vaughan that the Americans were a bunch of troublemakers isn't surprising when one of the characters in the film is a CIA director who rants about how there's no place in the agency for women, which must mean that he hadn't been paying attention to anything the CIA had done since its creation when it ran scores of female agents.

The film is also lumbered with the same confusing premise of the previous three in the series.  Again we are in a world where, for inconsistently explained reasons, superhuman mutants (who represent disaffected teenagers, blacks, or homosexuals depending on the writer's whim) are popping up all over the place.  Normal people (who represent mainstream white Americans) are almost invariably hate-filled, violent bigots who loathe and fear the mutants for no reason other than baseless, irrational prejudice.  However, this is more of a hypothetical hatred since most of the normals are completely unaware of the mutants' existence.  Then there's the fact that when their existence is revealed it's by events that demonstrate that the mutants possess weapons that can never be removed,  that they can and do control minds, penetrate top-level security systems with ease, coerce or assassinate public officials at will, commit mass murder with impunity, hijack warships, and that some of them are not only willing to execute, but to attempt genocide on a global scale as part of a unilaterally declared war on the human race.  And that's when there's only a half dozen of them involved.  Yet, according to the premise of the series, anyone who looks upon mutants with less than open arms is a crazed,, paranoid bigot.  It's a bit like doing The Crucible and establishing that there really are witches running around New England destroying and murdering.

I must be missing something.

It also doesn't help that Marvel superheroes aren't just absurd, as all superheroes are, they're ludicrous.  I simply cannot take them seriously on any level.  You've got characters with hands where their feet should be, look literally like devils, fly by screaming or with real pixie wings, turn into diamonds, hurl destructive hula hoops, become walking atomic bombs and routinely violate the laws of common sense.  Those of physics they just throw out the window.  And these are the more restrained ones that Marvel chose for their films.  In the comics, they're like something out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting and the line between heroes and villains vanished decades ago as the X-Men comics descended into a story of gang warfare where "heroes" and villains swap sides out of sheer boredom.  If this film were a story about, for example telepaths or some other sort of basic supermen all sharing similar abilites that the audience could relate to, there'd be some foundation on which to build a believable story. But it isn't.

It doesn't help that the X-Men themselves are a team lead by a man whose main tactics for fostering human/mutant d├ętente involve vigilantism, property damage, deliberately antagonising, if not frightening, those in authority, and flamboyant jumping about.  But even as melodrama or strained allegory X-Men: First Class is merely overwhelmed by its own excesses, overdone CGI action sequences, agenda and basic lack of verisimilitude.

This is a pity as the story does has some nice moments and a couple of neat threads that had potential.  Michael Fassbender provides a solid performance as a man named after an engine component who pulls off a performance that reminds one of how James Bond should be played and he has good chemistry with James McAvoy as the friend whom he ultimately betrays.  On the other end of the spectrum is January Jones, who really should look up acting in the dictionary because she's currently hasn't a clue.

In all, it's a film that aims at Thunderball, but ends up with Cairo: Nest of Spies.

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