Friday, October 28, 2011


X's and evil

By Edward Copeland
I've never read a single X-Men comic book, but I loved the first two films, especially the second, though I thought the third was a miss and I skipped the Wolverine standalone movie. Of course, I doubt I'm alone in thinking that Magneto (as played by the marvelous Ian McKellen) wasn't a villain: He just argued for self-defense against those out to destroy mutants as opposed to the always conciliatory Professor X (Patrick Stewart). X-Men: First Class gives the series a welcome boost by going back and telling the story of how the group first started, when Magneto and Professor X were just young men named Charles and Erik and actually fought together.

What may be what I found most surprising about X-Men: First Class is that I think it's the first time I've enjoyed a performance by James McAvoy, who plays the young Charles Xavier who becomes Professor X. He displays a lightness and range that was missing in films such as The Last King of Scotland or Atonement. It's also fun to see the young Xavier as a partying college student in the early '60s using his telepathic powers to try to get laid as opposed to the serious man he will develop into as Professor X.

Michael Fassbender also does well as Erik Lehnsherr, the eventual Magneto, showing the World War II events that scarred him as a Jew and a tool of experimentation by the film's villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who begins the film working with the Nazis but turns out to be a mutant himself intent on starting a nuclear war by engineering the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Bacon clearly enjoys chewing the scenery in his World War II scenes with his over-the-top German accent, but Shaw has some anti-aging abilities so when we meet him again in 1962 he speaks in his regular voice, which in a way might be one of the few points of shame in the otherwise other kicky ride.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed Kick-Ass which got some favorable reviews but which I never saw, keeps X-Men: First Class moving at a good pace and handles both the action scenes and the quieter ones with equal aplomb.

The second biggest surprise for me was the character of Mystique. Not being familiar with her origin, I never realized that the blue shape shifter that Rebecca Romijn played in the original trilogy, began as Xavier's adopted sister and went by the name Raven. Even more startling, X-Men: First Class accomplishes something that none of the other films did: It makes her a sympathetic character, helped in no small part by having the young adult Mystique played by the talented Jennifer Lawrence, who is about as far removed from her Oscar-nominated role in Winter's Bone that you can imagine, but flexes more acting muscles in this movie than all the metal the two Magnetos have bent on film.

Others delivering fine performances include Oliver Platt as the only man in the CIA who believes in the mutant and their potential as a positive asset and Nicholas Hoult, who was so great as a kid in About a Boy and good in A Single Man, as a lab geek who turns out to be a mutant and turns himself into The Beast.

On the other hand, it can be a bit frightening to see January Jones as Sebastian Shaw's mutant partner in the 1960s, Emma Frost. The thought of Mad Men harridan Betty Draper Francis possessing special powers sends shivers down my spine.

The movie also has a priceless two-word cameo that comes when Charles and Erik travel the world recruiting mutants for their program. There's a single scene with the great Ray Wise as the secretary of state, but it's not enough. You can never give me enough Ray Wise.

While X-Men: First Class isn't as great as X-Men or X2: X-Men United, the movie provides a fun ride. My one major criticism is the explanation of the split between Professor X and Magneto and how Erik becomes the so-called "bad mutant." The explanation doesn't seem to fly.

In the other films, his explanation made sense to me since there were humans out to destroy or cure the mutants. Here, in the crucial moment that starts him on that path, it simply comes from the suggestion made by the Shaw character who he has hunted down for killing his mom and experimenting on him.

Other than that, X-Men: First Class turns out to be quite an enjoyable ride.

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I agree that First Class was a great journey and was quite fresh but some plot points brought in were cliché-ish. For once could they not bring the nazi-theme in?! There have been other genocides in that timeframe. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just... random. McAvoy for me didn't bring any surprises but Fassbender seemed to bring it emotionally that the viewer in any way could make him the villain in the possible future installments.
They were sort of bound to bring in the Holocaust since they had already established that as part of Magneto's past in the first X-Men film and since this was an origin movie, to do otherwise would be revisionism. The Cuban Missile Crisis was random, but to find something in the timeframe when Erik and Charles were the right age if they wanted a real event, there were limited options. McAvoy though, as I said, hasn't done much for me in his other films, but I thought he had a lightness in his early scenes that was refreshing. Granted, it the later scenes he couldn't quite pull it off but that's always been my problem with him. I think he should try to do a pure comedy for a switch. He might have a flair for it versus heavier material.
They changed pretty much everything about the original origins story so they could've easily changed that. A lot of things with The First Class don't add up to facts established in the first X-Men movies so why go that kind of route.
You mentioned Kevin Bacon's over-the-top German accent well I think that wasn't as bad as his Russian. That was just disastrous.
In the very first X-Men movie, the fact that Magneto's backstory was that of a Holocaust survivor was pretty much the central metaphor of the movie just as the idea of "coming out" as a mutant was equivalent to coming out as gay was central to the second, and those were the two best films in the entire film series. As for how the comics dealt with them, I have no idea having never read any of them but comics change things all the time. How many different versions of The Joker have there been in Batman comic and graphic novels? I'm not so sure what your objection is with them doing something that's established. When there are still Holocaust deniers in the world, it never hurts to remind the world of it, even in pop action films.
I am in almost complete agreement with you, Ed. I found it to be better than X-MEN 3 and WOLVERINE but not quite as good as the first two X-MEN movies. James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender were good but it's really hard for me to picture anyone other than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in those roles. I also liked Jennifer Lawrence's take on Mystique and Kevin Bacon is always watchable IMO. Also, the cameos from more familiar X-Men faces were quite fun. I just can't figure out how January Jones continues to get work.

The one thing I have to take issue with you on, though, is Magneto. While I agree that he is a wonderfully complex and fantastically compelling character (beautifully played by McKellen), it's pretty obvious to me that he's a villain. Like you, I never read the comic books, so my introduction to the character has been merely through the movies and while there is no doubt that he serves as an antagonist in the stories, I realize it is hotly debated whether or not he is a true villain. In my book, he is. In X2 when he re-engineers "Cerebro" so that it will kill all humans on earth instead of all mutants, it's hard for me to accept that he is anything other than a full-on, wickedly evil bad guy at that point. It doesn't get much worse than attempting to wipe out millions of innocent lives. Stryker tried to do it, Hitler actually did it and we hate them both for it. In fact, I think part of the tragic irony of Magneto's character is that he has become the very thing that he has responded so violently against: a prejudiced "superior" being wwho wants to eliminate the "inferior" creatures of whom he is convinced all want to destroy him.
Still, in Magneto's view, he saw it as self-defense. Hitler didn't want to annihilate the Jews because he feared they planned to wipe out the Germans. Milosevic didn't want to rid the world of the Bosnian Muslims to make the world safe for Serbs. The same with the warring clans in Rwanda. Magneto's view may be a warped one, but it's an understandable one given what he has faced in his life, first as a Jew then as a mutant.
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