Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2011 4:32 pm 
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Skill sets

X-Men is a Marvel Comics story and so it concerns super beings with marvelous powers, but they aren't Norse gods or men in lycra unitards. They are mutants. In this pop fantasy version of biology, that doesn't mean they have developed into a new sub species. They're simply individuals with peculiar "mutations," traits that give them superhuman abilities. X-Men: First Class is the fifth installment in the film series based on Marvel Comics stories. Some experts tell us it's not a "prequel" but a "reboot." In other words, it goes back to the origins of the X-Men but doesn't try to mesh exactly with the previous episodes.

The fanboys and fangirls are never quite happy with any adaptations of their sacred comic book texts, and so one says all the X-Men movies are "horrible atrocities," and X-Man: First Class is not a reboot by intent but only because the filmmakers are dummies (a stronger word was used).

For this non-fanboy, X-Men: First Class is the most watchable of the five films. It's a bit over-the-top -- it tries to include everything and more, the origins of the series, a scientist who explains mutation, a re-writing of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a passionte defense of being different, and a concentration camp drama reminiscent of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. There are too many special effects after a while, the Missile Crisis gets silly and drawn out. Also saying this was the most watchable wouldn't be saying much for me in itself, because I could barely watch the other ones at all. But in many ways this movie (by the English director of the outrageous and fun Kick Ass) is splendid entertainment, full of good acting, pleasing to the eye, and a valid explanation of the whole X-Men idea.

Things start out very well, get better, level off, liven up a lot, but sort of fizzle out just because of the excesses of the climactic sequences. There's boy -- the future Magneto -- a Jewish boy (Bill Milner) who uses extrasensory powers to make the metal gate open when his mother has been taken away from him on the way into a Nazi concentration camp. And then the movie's arch baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in top form), AKA Dr. Schmidt, by an act of extraordinary cruelty, forces the boy to demonstrate his powers more spectacularly. This is an excellent use of special effects. It's lovely fun to see Dr. Schmidt's evil Nazi lab self-destruct, hacksaws and scalpels flying around, and Dr. Schmidt delighted because he's got a real first-class mutant on his hands.

All that is a mere introduction, an ür-moment in the life of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, and what cements it to the main action is the Inglourious Basterds interlude where grownup Erik, now played by the terrific Michael Fassbender (whose role in the Tarantino movie is an obvious subtext), dazzling us with his considerable linguistic skills as he first menaces a French banker in French, and then turns up in Argentina to ferret out a couple of former Nazis and finish them off in choice German (the actor's second language).

Things move faster and faster after this, and I won't even try to summarize. James McAvoy is the anchor of the whole movie, and he does sort of look like a mutant, one now realizes, always has: those unnaturally red lips, that pasty-white skin, those glittering eyes, that preturnaturally articulate speech in various adopted accents. He is the scientist, but also a "telepath," someone whose superhuman gift is to be able to enter and alter other minds. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) starts up a school and later a team, for humans with superhuman abilities. He also explains everything to us, which the movie is perhaps a bit to eager to do. But then that's its chosen task, and it does it well. No one who watches this movie can ever wonder what the X-Men stories are all about (even though some important earlier characters are barely shown here -- notably Wolverine, the uncredited Hugh Jackman).

X-Men: First Class is a summer blockbuster, and it's likely to blow all the other ones away. It sums up the themes of its franchise, it has splendid and never gratuitous CGI, and it offers up a wealth of fine actors, including a whole group of new young ones as up-and-coming mutants, led by a terrific Nicolas Hoult (the star of the first season of Skins, who came on the scene as the boy in About a Boy). Hoult is sympathetic and a little tragic as Hank/the Beast. Because it zeros in on the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, everything takes on a period flavor as it if were all some grandiose synthesis of old James Bond episodes (though with effects they didn't have). That makes it possible to see the ridiculous excesses of fancy and effect as charmingly campy. And along with that, the interior decor and many of the costumes are a great pleasure to look at. Let's not forget the ladies, who include the young up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven/Mystique), January Jones (who comes with the right period associations from "Mad Men"), Rose Byrne, Zoë Kravitz -- the list goes on. The writing is fine here: despite the over-explaining, there are really a lot of interesting ideas thrown out to ponder. This is about as close as a blockbuster gets to being a movie for smart people.

I'd say that a major logical flaw in the narrative is that the group of young mutants, Charles Xavier's "first class," are still getting their tricks under control when they must face off against Sebastian Shaw's exploitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They turn perfect a bit too fast there. Such are the pitfalls of trying to merge so many far-fetched ideas and explanations into a coherent narrative in one gonzo and fast-paced blockbuster. But as even some of the pickiest fanboys acknowledge, it's a heck of a show. No wonder this is 132 minutes long. It's got a lot going on.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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