Film: X-Men: First Class

Amazingly enough, I get to talk about a new film by virtue of my finals being over.  Hooray!

When I first heard, after several years of disinterest in the X-Men movies due to everyone telling me that X3 and Origins were terrible, that a new X-Men prequel movie was in the works, this time featuring the origins of  Professor X and Magneto, I was extremely skeptical? After all, I found most of the appeal in the first two films to be the performances of Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen; I just didn’t see how they could find actors to believably portray either character at a younger age, short sections of young Magneto in a concentration camp notwithstanding. Then I saw the trailer and was considerably interested, and when it came out and people started saying things between “It’s entertaining” and “Just as good as The Dark Knight,” I decided that my pre-determined movie date with a friend would be better spent giving X-Men another chance than watching Thor.

So, was I wrong?

This film was made primarily for fans of the X-Men franchise, no doubt about it. While there is some explanation of the fact that all of the people with superpowers are mutants and all that, anyone who hasn’t seen X1 and X2 will not get some of the jokes, and people with no familiarity with the X-Men will probably be very confused, and consequently might not like the film. Those who have recently watched the first two movies will be rewarded with some inside jokes and references.

Originally, I actually wrote a review, but then I found this video review from Movie Bob on The Escapist that is a lot more interesting and concise than what I wrote: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/escape-to-the-movies/3371-X-Men-First-Class

So I won’t repeat that stuff. A few additional points [Edit: this turned into a “plotholes and nitpicks” list toward the end, so if you get sick of me saying what’s wrong with the film, just read the first few bullet points and know that most of these are really just nitpicks and they weren’t terribly obvious while I was watching the film; it was only afterwards that I realized that something was actually strange (cue Inception music). Overall, I really did like the film, and it’s a solid addition to the X-Men franchise and the superhero genre. Thumbs up.]:

  • I didn’t like the film as much as Movie Bob did. I liked it, I really did, and I want to go see it again (now that I’ve re-watched the first two X-Men films and will get all the jokes now), which is a pretty freaking rare occurrence; the last film I wanted to see over again immediately after it was released was Inception, which is on my personal (and biased) top ten films of all time list. But I wouldn’t say it was as good as Dark Knight. The following are a bunch of reasons why, but in general it’s kind of rushed and a little unfocused. There’s a lot of great material in here, and it could easily have gone another hour and been just as fun to watch, and then they would have had time to explore the many, many characters a little more. I’d be curious to see the director’s cut/extended edition and find out which scenes got the chop.
  • As mentioned before, this is really a prequel to the first two X-Men films, and although it works well for people who have seen those films, anyone trying to get into the series will have a rough time. That’s really too bad, and it’s a bit of a mark against the movie in my book, because it would have been nice to see the film stand on its own a little more and be able to introduce people to the series who weren’t into it before.
  • The leads are awesome. McAvoy is a surprisingly douchey/arrogant/doesn’t-think-of-other-people’s-feelings Charles Xavier, which gives a sense of how much the events of the film change him into the Professor X we know from the first two films. Fassbender gives a fun and very convincing Erik Lensherr, capturing the pain, despair, and anger that define the character. The movie is almost more about him than it is about Charles, and even though it eventually places the two on opposite sides and shows Erik as a violent extremist and Charles as the more reasonable leader, most of the people who walked out of the theater with me (people who didn’t know anything about X-Men, no less) were saying, “Screw the professor, I’d side with Magneto! He was totally right!” I’m very glad that the filmmakers made the choice to cast Erik/Magneto as more of a traditional hero (his action scenes really do scream “James Bond” more than any non-Bond movie I’ve seen), as I think it made for a much more interesting film. The friendship between the two men is a major focus of the movie, and I wish they’d spent even more time on it, because it really changes the characters; Erik gets a friend who really understands what he has gone through and cares about him (probably for the first time since the war), and Charles becomes much more sympathetic, encouraging and understanding by teaching the X-Men to control their powers and helping Erik deal with his past. In terms of continuity, this is crucial to explaining the lasting friendship between the two men even through decades of fighting each other up through the first two X-Men films. They seem to understand each other very well, and the manner in which they part ways suggests that Charles would still wish for Erik to find a way to deal with his anger and guilt, and Erik would miss the only person to truly understand him and feel guilty about leaving Charles. Wow, this got long. New topic!
  • As much as I stand by what I just said about Erik and Charles deserving even more screen time, I wish there had been more development of the X-Men as individuals. Mystique gets the most development of the secondary characters as Charles’ adopted sister, so that worked out pretty well. Beast gets the second most, but it consists almost entirely of his desire to look normal, a tiny romance with Mystique, and his training montage (which is basically him running with Charles). The rest of the X-Men just get a short introductory scene showing how Erik and Charles recruited them, a bit in the group scene where they all show off their powers and get their nicknames, a two scenes in the training montage (one showing them failing at whatever their power is and Charles giving them advice, the next showing them succeeding), and then the climactic battle. While the dialogue that’s there is a great starting point for fleshing out the characters and their relationships, there just isn’t enough time for them to develop into full characters.
  • You know what could have been cut out in order to leave more time for the X-Men? Many of the scenes with the Hellfire Club, and especially the stuff with Emma Frost. I don’t want to be mean, but I found the scenes with her in them tedious and sometimes superfluous. There’s only so much time you can spend looking at a hot woman in white who occasionally turns into diamond unless she has a personality, half-decent vocal expression, a reason for doing what she’s doing, etc. As is, we don’t really know why Emma Frost is part of the Hellfire Club or really anything about what she’s thinking. For as much screen time as she has, she’s an incredibly bland character, and I think the blame lies partly on the actor and partly on the writers for that. It also would have been more suspenseful if we didn’t know every single thing that the Hellfire Club was planning, so we would be surprised when they turned out to be on a submarine below the boat, or whatever. That came out a bit harsher than I meant it, but I was generally kind of annoyed when the movie cut away from something interesting on the X-Men side of things to watch the bad guys hang out in their submarine.
  • Minor nitpick: The opening footage of the concentration camp until it cuts to the scientist looking out the window was pretty much exactly (or maybe just exactly) the same as the footage from the first X-Men film, which ended the sequence with a pan up to see the smokestack of a crematorium. That was an extremely powerful shot, and I really wish they had left it in. It speaks to the horror of the camps to have a simple but powerful reminder of the fact that millions of people died in the camps and that they’re important as well, not just Erik’s mom. I apologize for the poor phrasing in that last sentence.
  • SPOILER ALERT: It would have been nice to see just one normal human (besides Moira, but she had been working with the mutants from the beginning and she had a personal stake in trying to help them because it was a) her career on the line and b) the missiles in question were going to kill her as well) have some kind of moral doubt about killing a bunch of people with no particular reason other than, “They’re different. And dangerous…They must die!” It just makes the normal people look almost cartoonishly bad, in contrast to the first two X-Men films, where there are a lot of bigots, but also some reasonable people.
  • You may have noticed that I’m comparing this film to the first two X-Men films a lot. This is because they seem to be in the same continuity, and because they’re the only real frame of reference I have for X-Men, since I haven’t read the comics (the only other information I have comes from Wikipedia and from talking to people who have read the comics). I’ve said what those films did better than First Class, but what does First Class do better? Well, to be honest, I don’t like most of the “classic” X-Men that much; Storm is pretty cool, so’s Nightcrawler, and Cyclops gets a lot of unnecessary hate (in my opinion; they seem to set him up as kind of unpleasant just so Wolverine will look good), but Wolverine is definitely not my favorite (people seem to like him, but I really don’t know why…) and the kids in the films (Rogue, Iceman, Pyro, etc.) don’t charm me as much as I feel like the films think they should, partly because they don’t really get to do anything; Rogue is just a plot device in the first film and the kids make minor contributions in the second. In First Class, not only are the kids more fun and interesting (and racially and socioeconomically diverse), but they actually get to do stuff instead of being given powers and then being babysat for the entire movie. Yeah, “they’re just kids,” but that comes up in  First Class as well, and it gets tossed aside via “No, they’ve grown up since they were attacked, abandoned by one of their friends, and saw another die,” and “Yeah, but they can handle themselves in danger and we really, really need them” sort of mixed together. Speaking of which, the decision to train the kids as a SpecOps team leads to a major nitpick for me…
  • A week?!! You’re training these people for combat in one week?  Are you kidding me? I know they already have pretty good mastery of their powers, and they could probably be a pretty good team with what they start out with, but there’s waaaay more to preparing for a huge, crucial mission like this one than just improving your firepower. They need to go over intelligence reports, practice working as a team, come up with contingency plans for emergencies (I know they have flying people and stuff, but since Erik doesn’t seem to have figured out flying until after they crash the jet, I hope they knew how to use parachutes in case something failed really high in the air…), and…well, I’m sure someone who actually knows something about special ops could add a lot more to the list. Personally, if I were, say, Charles, and therefore didn’t have any kind of offensive power apart from mind control, (which he appears not to really use), I would want to learn how to use a gun. That goes for Mystique and Beast as well, since they lack ranged firepower. The teamwork thing is a big one, though. Somehow, [SPOILER] when the CIA training facility gets attacked by the Hellfire Club, Havok and Darwin are able to formulate a plan to kill the baddies and save Angel without talking to each other at all. I would say that they’ve obviously gotten to know each other really, really at the facility to have that kind of teamwork, but as I recall, the last scene with Darwin and Havok  in it was the one where they were partying after showing off their powers, and that can’t have been too long before the attack, and they probably weren’t working together with their powers, either. Dear filmmakers, teamwork does not happen naturally in groups of people who don’t know each other really, really well. You need to work on it.
  • How does the jet (or X-plane, or whatever…which looks a lot like an SR-71…) go from “almost done” to “finished, and I can fly it and do tricks and everything” in the amount of time it would take for Erik and Charles to go on the mission in Russia, and assorted messing around, plus one week (call it a month at best)? You test flew that thing before you put the super-special-genius-one-of-a-kind mutant in the cockpit, right? Also, “I designed it” does not translate to “I can fly it,” no matter how cool you sound when you say it.
  • [SPOILER] Re: the attack on the CIA facility: really, movie? You’re killing off the black guy? And the other non-white person goes to the dark side? Those are some pretty tired stereotypes. I realize that this is probably dictated by comic book continuity (i.e., I think I remember reading somewhere that he was black, and he dies at some point), but…really? At least you could have retconned Banshee to be non-white, or something. It just bothered me a bit that the final X-Men team consists only of white guys.
  • [Spoiler, sort of, but it’s not really that surprising] How is Shaw’s plan supposed to work, exactly? He apparently wants the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to get in a nuclear war that will kill everybody on the planet so he can rise up to rule to rule the world. I hate to burst your bubble, Mr. Shaw, but the radiation would probably just kill everybody, and the people it didn’t kill would be living in countries with no infrastructure, which means no food, bad roads, no sanitation, no fuel, no clean water: basically, everyone dies except Shaw (because he absorbs energy and uses it to power his…undefined energy manipulation power), who then dies of starvation. X1, X2, and First Class all make the same science mistake, and while it’s not too important to the plot, it’s a pretty big mistake. It is this: radiation works the same for everybody (unless, I suppose, you’re Shaw). This has two collolaries (which, again, don’ t necessarily apply to Shaw). First of all, they say that radiation = mutation. This is true. What isn’t true is radiation = useful mutation. Usually, radiation = radiation burns, cancer, and horrible, horrible death. So while I guess irradiating everybody would turn them into mutants, it would mostly turn them into dead, disfigured people . Secondly, mutants should be affected by radiation as much as anyone else, so they could get cancer and die as well. There is a third corollary that applies specifically to the first X-Men film, which is as follows: in order for someone to get mutant powers, the mutation would almost certainly have to be in all of their cells in order for their immune system to not malfunction and kill them or something. This means that you can’t give someone mutant powers by irradiation them. Sorry. It just doesn’t work.
  • We only see Shaw influencing two important people in the movie: a U.S. general and a Soviet general. Somehow, each of these people on their own has the power to change their country’s military policy, which on both sides appears to involve the opinion of many other generals as well. I know that Shaw probably went for the most important person on each side that he could find, but doesn’t anyone on their council thing it’s incredibly suspicious that this guy who was once arguing for one side suddenly changed his mind and started vehemently arguing for the other? It’s not technically a plot hole, but definitely a bit of plot-induced stupidity.
  • Another nitpick, this time on the aesthetic side of things. I really wished they made the film look a little more like it was happening in the 1960s, when it is supposed to. There’s not much they could have done about this, and it’s probably incredibly realistic (I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t alive then), but… I don’t know. Maybe the problem is that most of the scenes take place in settings that haven’t changed too much since the sixties (the Xavier estate exists just as plausibly now as it would back then, the insides of pubs don’t change much between decades, Oxford probably hasn’t either, lots of minimalist concrete buildings exist today, and scientists still use satellite dishes and chunky computers and all of those things), but then we get places like the inside of the submarine, which should realistically be cramped, dingy, metallic and full of technical stuff, but instead is roomy, comfortable  and spotless white,as well as being huge and differently shaped than any submarine of the era. So it’s apparently set in the 1960s, but the Hellfire Club has ridiculously advanced alien technology or something. I sense a bit of James Bond influence here…
  • [HUGE SPOILER, seriously don’t read this one if you haven’t seen the film] Charles tells the team to wear the iconic yellow suits Beast made more them (in the crate marked “x,” ha ha) because (paraphrasing) none of them can withstand high G-forces or are bulletproof. I suppose that G-suits could conceivably look like that (I have been informed that they work by compressing your legs so that the blood doesn’t rush into them from your head), but bulletproof? I think not. For bulletproof, you basically need Kevlar armor, which those definitely do not have. This wouldn’t be a problem at all, except a) it doesn’t seem to take all that much force to rip Havok’s power-directing thing off his suit, leaving his bare, exposed chest (so…they’re naked under those things? That doesn’t look too comfortable) and most egregiously b) Charles gets shot. These things aren’t bulletproof at all. “Well, maybe it helped a little bit,” you say. I don’t think so; the shot looked like a relatively small angle from straight at him, so it was just barely more into his body than a graze would have been, and it still managed to paralyze him. That suit didn’t do shit, and it was silly of Charles to think it would. Here’s some non-spoiler things to fill up some space so that anyone who skipped this (you shouldn’t have read that unless you’ve already seen the movie). Um. This bears repeating from the start of the list: I liked this movie. I know I’m going through and whinging about every plothole I can think of, but the fact that I put as much effort as I have into this (as of now, the total length of this post is about as long as my IB extended essay…holy shit) means that it drew me into the world and I really enjoyed thinking about it some more quite a while after I saw. Sure, it’s flawed, but this is a well-done movie and I highly recommend that you settle down and watch the first two X-Men films (which are pretty damn good as well), then (probably the next day or something) go out and see this on the big screen. This is a superhero franchise with brains and heart, and it would be nice for that to be rewarded instead of just gratuitous PWP violence or some formula romcom. *gets off soapbox*  Thank you.

And now, for your reading pleasure, the slashiest moments of the movie (I know this is kind of silly, but there were some scenes that I really enjoyed, and a horrible little voice in the back of my head was screaming “The slash writers are going to have a field day with this one!” Since these are scattered throughout the movie and mostly involve the leads, they are spoilers for the plot of the movie, so SPOILERS AHOY.

  • Almost any scene with Erik and Charles. Ok, that’s a cop-out. I’ll be more specific.
  • Charles dives into the ocean to save Erik (someone he just knew existed thirty seconds ago) and clings on to him while pleading him to stop pursuing the submarine.
  • Charles asking Erik to help him lead the younger generation of mutants (ok, this one’s a stretch, but I’m sure somebody has turned it into a slashfic by now).
  • Charles and Erik (yes, it’s mostly them doing slashy things) at the stripclub where Angel works, lying on the bed together, looking extremely comfortable, driking champagne and saying, “We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.” I know this one is a blatant sexual reference but, mostly it’s the way they look really comfortable lying next to each other on a bed.
  • Charles helping Erik remember a family Hanukkah celebration, with both of them experiencing the memory (Erik is crying and Charles…doesn’t appear to be, but he does something that resembles wiping away a tear. Maybe he’s connected to Erik’s senses as well) and its importance. This is followed by Erik succeeding at turning the satellite dish toward them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they would have hugged or something had they not been interrupted by Kennedy’s address.
  • Charles getting himself in a very dangerous position to help Erik get off the landing gear (which is pretty illogical, since he can stick to metal if he wants, and therefore could have climbed back up himself), and subsequently Erik protecting Charles while the jet crashes by pinning him to the hull as it rolls around. (Slashers: oooh, look! Erik’s lying on top of him!)
  • And, finally, Erik holding Charles after he gets shot and looking so very sorry that it happened. D’awwww. I’m not saying any more than that because of massive, massive spoilers.
  • Slashy moments for the rest of the cast: ummmmmmm. Not really many going on. I guess you could do Hank/Havok as a stretch, since they have a sort of insult war/bromance going on, and in Hollywood that means they’re best buddies, but as mentioned ad nauseum before, most of the kids don’t get that much development, Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost definitely have a thing going, and Azazel and Riptide don’t get much characterization.

Yes, I know that Charles spends quite a bit of time in the beginning of the film trying to pick up girls, possibly as a way for the filmmakers to mitigate the tendency for people to see Erik/Charles guy love and think “gay!” I know Erik and Mystique theoretically maybe have a thing going on (even though it’s just one scene in this movie and thankfully he doesn’t show any interest beyond telling her to be proud of who she is), and really this is just taking their relationship beyond what the creators probably intended but…that’s what slash is, basically, and it can be done really well. This pairing certainly makes more sense than, say, Sirius/Severus Snape. Or Draco/Ron. Or Fred/George, or (different fandom) Aragon/Legolas or Luke Skywalker/Han Solo or Farami/Shagrat. (Yes, that is real. Faramir, and the orc that runs the guard tower near Cirith Ungol. I read the first chapter and nearly puked, it’s so out of character. Gaaaaaah.  Pass the brain bleach). I clearly have more to say on this subject, but for now, I’ll just say this is a pair that it actually makes sense to slash.

[Featured image: movies.geourdu.co]

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