The Spandex Retrospective: X-Men: First Class (2011)

I finally got out of the 'Star Trek: Into Darkness' midnight showing, near three in the morning and I was pissed. There had been applause at the end of the film, something I hadn't heard at a movie in years and I couldn't fathom what possibly my fellow geeks were celebrating. As I argued with myself during the drive home about 'Darkness's brutal blatant stupidity, I felt a weird nauseous familiarity creep over me. The next day I pinpointed what the feeling was. It reminded me of seeing 'X-Men: First Class'.

Now, upon second viewing for this review some of my venom about 'First Class' has diluted, a venom presumably attributable to the exhausting and uncanny experience seeing it the night of 'Heroes Convention 2011', but my bewilderment stands. The film was lauded almost universally by geeks as an exceptional superhero movie, some even going as far as to ridiculously claim it was the Marvel equivalent of 'The Dark Knight'. Adjectives were thrown around like 'smart' and 'well-written' with an apparent obliviousness to their meaning, leading me to think my fellows had been finally done in by the one-two punch of Ratner and Hood.

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This isn't to say that 'X-Men: First Class' didn't get a surprising amount right. I've often been dismayed at the lack of creativity and daring in modern blockbusters, especially in superhero films, but there was quite a bit of risk on display in 'First Class'. The film was loaded with a collection of B to D list mutants with practically no name recognition for the man on the street and little attempt was made to rely on the aesthetic established by the existing trilogy, perhaps a conscious attempt to throw the increasingly rank reputation of the franchise's previous two installments. As cold reboots of existing series like 'The Amazing Spider-Man' feel drowsily uninspired, to see a prequel that felt like it was striking out on its own was admittedly refreshing.

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Also, unlike the hobbling nonsense of 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine', the film never confused what era it was set in. It was a genuine period superhero movie loaded with black turtlenecks, swinging 60's music, and dot-matrix printers. The dialogue was left anachronistic however, meaning alas we only get to hear Xavier use the word 'groovy' briefly, but it prevents the film from being too distracting to modern audiences. The attention to detail was admirable and impressive, only hurting the film in relation to Sebastian Shaw's proto-Brotherhood that all dressed like they had just walked off the set of 'Austin Powers 4'.

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The film also had a real structure that while not original by any means still showed that at one point in the creative process real thought was given to the stories of the characters they were developing. James McAvoy's Charles Xavier was young, stylish, and even arrogant. He used his powers casually and initially seemed most interested in using his big brain to mack on college birds. Unlike Abrams' 'Star Trek' reboots where characters are aggressive caricatures of their older selves, 'First Class' wisely recognized that people when they're young are often entirely unrecognizable as the person they become with age. Fassbender's Erik Lensherr strays as well from the Shakespearian tone of McKellen's Magneto and is reshaped into a James Bond like hitman, constantly teetering on the edge of rage and agony. It's made a point in the plot that his experience in the Nazi concentration camps were unique thanks to his mutant abilities, experimented on to such an extent to cause repression of deep memories, a parallel, perhaps unintentional, with pre-'Origins' Wolverine.

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Special note should also be given to Jennifer Lawrence and her arc as Mystique, which is one of the more interesting ideas the film has to offer. Here, Mystique is Xavier's foster sister, rescued from a life of homelessness as a child. The nature of her character is ironic, that as person who is able to alter her form at will she feels self-conscious about her natural reptilian looks; painfully jealous of her oblivious adopted sibling who feels none of those social pressures. Some of the film's best moments come from this choice, taking a character that was largely a special effect in the original trilogy and hinging a genuine plot on her. Young Xavier is revealed to have been insensitive to the dilemma of visually different mutants, giving the allure of Magneto's open mutant-centric society an honest appeal to the young Mystique, and even giving a plausible rationale to her later choice to prance around nude and blue. Lawrence has genuine chemistry with both McAvoy and Fassbender but alas is stuck with Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy for most of the film, who seems to emote largely by cycling through various adorable awkward looks.

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While I heap praise on the lead three actors, they deserve even more for wrangling the worst element of the film; it’s awful script. Dialogue throughout seems to consist almost entirely of exposition or blunt literal explanations of the plot. It's actually remarkable to watch McAvoy and Fassbender attempt to make dialogue that reads like bulletpoints sound conversational. Even the rare scenes that are intended to be intimate and further the relationships between characters  just ping-pong back and forth, like an improvised example a college professor might invent to explain dialogue in its basest form. The first draft feel of the script dulls even the best intentions of the story and makes anyone who isn't McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence look inept and goofy.

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Rose Byrne, a fine actress to be sure, is reduced to looking pretty and doing a surprised face, and the awkward bookmark of her kiss with Xavier is utterly lacking in foreshadowing. The other Xavier students are immediately forgettable. Banshee is played by a lost Weasley brother and Havok doesn't feel required to change his facial expression or vocal pitch. Oliver Platt is brought onboard, apparently to remind me that the 90's thought he was an actor. There's a doofy quality to the portrayals of American and Russian military that robs the escalation to the Cuban Missle Crisis of any and all tensions, the Russian General featuring all the stereotyped subtly of Nikolai Jakov from television's 'Archer'. Sebastian Shaw's collection of grab-bag mutants have as much personality as they are given dialogue and look silly in every scene they inhabit, with Zoe Kratitz's traitorous Angel being awful to the point of distraction. Luckily, for her that is, she had January Jones to provide contrast.

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January Jones stars on one of television's most highly acclaimed dramas and has hosted 'Saturday Night Live' yet somehow came off like she'd never been in front of a camera before. Playing fan favorite Emma Frost, she emitted an utter vacancy that was horrifying to behold, with Barbie-bland delivery like she was playing a sex robot set to confused boredom. She was clearly brought on to be window dressing, taking the complex character Frost had recently been developed into and converted into a plot device with display cleavage. Even in this meager unappealing duty she failed miserably, coming off as sexy as a hat-rack. She was easily as rage inducing as 'X-Men Origins: Wolverines's' but at the very least he had the excuse of not being an actor beforehand.

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What's truly awful is how much screen time found its way back to her, as the film kept seeing it necessary to cut away from the story to Shaw's ridiculous looking submarine set so he could allude to his Master Plan. And boy is it a doozy. Essentially, Shaw intended to ignite World War III so the Americans and Russians would willingly nuke the planet. It was alluded to that the modern mutants may have been accelerated into existence by the dawn of nuclear experimentation. Shaw states that the nuclear fire that kills mankind would only make mutants 'stronger', creating an apocalyptic wasteland ruled by the Children of the Atom. God only knows what he means by this, because save for Wolverine and himself most mutants get killed by all kinds of things. Bullets. Fire. Suffocation. Why nuclear explosions wouldn't be on that list is left unsaid.


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It was also a joke because Shaw wasn't ever depicted as a rugged idealist. He sipped wine on his luxurious-ish submarine, and when he wasn't doing that he was at his Vegas Hellfire Club surrounded by fine spirits and easy poonany. We never see why this well-heeled ponce would want to end a world of all of that, as nuclear hellfire wipes out all fine food, wine, culture, and pretty much anything else worth owning and enjoying. With Fassbender's Magneto we can see that fire, that glowing rage that would end the world to save mutantdom. With Shaw neither his plan nor motivations are of the slightest intelligence and undermine any sense of threat from him in ways Kevin Bacon in a silver Magneto helmet couldn't hope to.

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Despite stretching out its own direction in many ways, the film still contains plenty of ugly 'Origins'esque attempts to explain where parts of the franchise came from that we never asked it to. In one scene the young teen mutant students are goofing off and take it upon themselves to invent the codenames Professor X and Magneto for their teachers, meaning the world's most powerful mutant terrorist has been using a dorky nickname some kids called him once in the 60s. Of course, by the end of the film Xavier has to be in a wheelchair by the rules of prequel, but weirdly it's the same futuristic silver wheelchair he has in 2000, as well as the same kind of blue suit, making me wonder if he never learned how to change clothes as a paralyzed person. However, just like 'Origins' the film has a general disregard for the series' existing canon, making it all feel like awkward fanservice rather than relevant.

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An early scene bothered me the first time I saw it; Erik walked into an Argentinian bar owned by ex-Nazis, hunting for Sebastian. It wasn't that Sebastian apparently thought it was a good idea to take a photo with his old Nazi buddies, hung proudly in the bar. It wasn't that the guy that Erik pins to a table with a knife through the hand never struggles or attempts to remove the knife . It wasn't even that Erik kills all of the former Nazis before interrogating any of them for Shaw's location. It's the score. Initially I thought the scene was paced badly, feeling like there was a weird rushed quality to the dialogue, but the second time I viewed it I realized it's the omnipresent score that blankets the whole movie in faux-Zimmer noise. In most superhero films, a bad score is generally just forgettable, but here composer Henry Jackman's inelegant soundtrack hammered at the film as much as the clunky dialogue, uneasy with the idea of the audience being able to read the beats of the film without it being announced. There's a famous bootleg version of 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace' that edited out all references and appearances of Jar-Jar Binks, resulting in a vastly improved film. I imagine a similar result could be achieved with 'First Class' by removing 50% of the film's overbearing score.

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If there was a scene that summarized my feelings about the film it came during the climax, when Erik finally faced his dorky looking nemesis in the sub's reactor room. While Shaw is physically frozen by Xavier's powers, Erik levitates a Nazi coin and in in a callback to his torture at Shaw's hands forces the coin magnetically through his tormentor's brain while Xavier is agonizingly forced to psychically witness and experience it. It's an effective and well written scene that is structured for emotional payoff. I remember watching it however, recognizing this, and feeling nothing. A part of me really wanted to experience the payoff intended, but after having to wade through all of the sloppy writing and filmmaking to get to that point, the effect was dulled down to loud numbing slosh. Nothing is worse as an audience member then really wanting to like an infuriating film.