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X Men: First Class

Posted by on Jun 4th, 2011 and filed under Film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

First off, 20th Century Fox should give Matthew Vaughn the greenlight of his dreams for bringing this franchise reboot into theatres on time and in such superb shape.

Back in February, January Jones told the Canadian Press that Fox were pushing the director to the limit:

“Poor Matthew Vaughn is going to have to edit it in three days…I think it was unrealistic for them to think they were going to make such a huge movie in whatever we had — two months or something…The fact we’ve had to push the wrap date but they haven’t moved the release date is really interesting to me. I guess they must know what they’re doing. I have a lot of faith in Matthew as a director and an editor; I think his movies are great. And I think they’ve been cutting as we’ve been going. We should be fine.”

And do you know what? She was right, they are fine – in fact, Vaughn has somehow crafted a character driven comic movie with a broader emotional range than any preceding Marvel product. I enjoyed Thor immensely, as bombastic entertainment. Branagh painted with a broad brush because Asgard’s epic nature demanded it. Vaughn brings his superheroes back to the barest of earth right from the first frame in Auschwitz, defining First Class as a very human drama wrought by an excellent ensemble cast totally commited to the material. Kevin Bacon, as Josef Mengele proxy Dr Hans Schmidt, straightaway sets the standard, ratcheting up the urbane amorality that sets young Erik Lehnsherr on the vengeful road to Magneto.

Lehnsherr, as played by Michael Fassbender, is Vaughn’s ace in the hole. Fassbender is just a mesmerising actor, appropriately magnetic, speechlessly watchable. Vaughn admits that, in the all-too-brief scenes where Erik’s tracking Schmidt, the director encouraged Fassbender to channel Connery-era Bond, and the results rivet your gaze to every deadly move Erik makes.

Fassbender himself has joked that he took First Class as a chance to do ”a really elaborate James Bond audition” but, putting aside the previously unimaginable disappointment that Daniel Craig is so perfectly settled in 007′s shoes, it’s Fassbender’s inclusive acting approach - his ability to express an intimacy in direct proportion to his steely exterior – that marks him out as a star here. He’s talked of this before:      

“In drama school, they don’t think of movies as a pure form like theater, and it’s films that I love most. There’s an intimacy in movies – I wanted to have the same impact on others that movies had on me.”

And that’s what he does, beautifully, in every scene he shares with James McAvoy.One moment actually made me cry. Charles Xavier (as played by McAvoy) is helping Erik hone powers previously accessible only through rage & pain. Xavier explains that, in order to fulfil his true potential, Erik has to tap into serenity just as much as ferocity, to which end the telepath unlocks a memory in Erik’s mind: a forgotten moment of tender peace & love with the mother murdered by Schmidt. The emotions which then course through both men, the torrent of torment & determination, relief & revelation, and the way they share all that with the audience, is incredible cinema.

The chemistry, the bond between McAvoy & Fassbender, is stronger than it ever was between McKellen & Stewart. There’s a desperate life force concordant with their youth & purposes that outstrips the more stately rivalry between the two old thesps. Charles is a telepath trying to reconcile humans & mutants even though he knows every mutation in history has eventually annihilated its forebears. Erik embraces that evolution and current mankind’s predestined extinction, fighting against humans because he understands their fear, their knee-jerk need for a preemptive strike to evade the inevitable. Charles fights for humans because he hasn’t forgotten the source of that understanding – humanity itself, above & beyond any physical mutation. It’s the balancing act of blind prejudice & humanist acceptance that every X-Men movie has to manage in its own way, and First Class handles it more or less impeccably.

I say ‘more or less’ because the film isn’t flawless. Here’s the plot: after the war, Dr Schmidt leaves Germany and becomes Sebastian Shaw, a mutant with the ability to infinitely absorb & exude energy. Aided & abetted by his mutant team, including January Jones as the telepathic (and diamond bodied) Emma Frost, he manipulates Moscow & Washington to the verge of World War Three, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The radiation of Armageddon, Shaw reasons, will strengthen mutants while eradicating the human race. It’s a win-win, in which Shaw will become the king of all creation.

The CIA enlist Xavier, as a geneticist, to help stop him. When he reveals his own mutation they let him assemble a team of ‘good’ mutants to counteract the threat. Erik, also on Shaw’s tail, joins up after Charles saves his life and clarifies to him how much more he has to learn about his own power. Only when that power is fully realised can Shaw be defeated.

Working the Cuban Missile Crisis into the scenario is genius, because it immediately provides a bedrock of historically understood tension that Vaughn can build on. It’s the one instance in modern history where the stakes couldn’t have been higher, and twisting the mutant question into it creates a natural climactic flashpoint.

The period, though, brings its own problems, namely sexism. It crops up a couple of times in CIA boardrooms, but sometimes I wonder if it’s just an excuse to strip the female principals down to their skivvies. January Jones, in particular, does little else but look (and, unfortunately, act) statuesque. Even CIA agent Moira MacTaggert is introduced in suspenders, while Jennifer Lawrence is either in tight leather mini-skirts or buck blue naked as Mystique. Perhaps the film’s central focus on Charles & Erik makes the sidelining of subsidiary characters inevitable, but some come off worse than others. The Hank/Mystique relationship, in particular, is just a non-starter.

Let’s not dwell, for now, on how Hank’s ‘cure’ can effect appearance but not abilities when most of their abilities (including Hanks’ own) are consequences of their appearance, but - and I know this is a bit purist – isn’t Dr Hank McCoy supposed to be one of the wittiest, brainiest, most politically savvy players on the planet?

God bless Nicholas Hoult – he’s just enlivening what’s on the page – but his Hank is nowhere near as powerful as he should be. Say what you like about the Fantastic Four movies, at least they dared to show big egos clashing within the team. The narrative emphasis was always on the FF as a unit and they let the frictions play out to emphasise the unit’s strength. Similarly, the X-Men franchise shouldn’t be afraid of having more than one massively charismatic character in the team beyond Wolverine or Magneto. They need to give other characters the weight to counterbalance these powerful draws, and Hank McCoy is the natural choice for that kind of development. Right now he’s much too Jekyll & Hyde – either weedy or beasty – and, frankly, his make-up’s a bit shit. Let’s hope Vaughn beefs him up next time round.

And there will be a next time round, because - against all the odds Fox stacked against it – X Men: First Class will rake in colossal acreages of cash and singlehandedly redeem a franchise apparently cremated by X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s already supplanted poor Thor as my favourite Marvel movie yet. And it’s not in 3D! Huzzah!

Go see. Now.

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