Monday 6 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Rated Entertainment

X-Men: First Class US 2011
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: There be some mild/light spoilers here that probably won’t pack as much punch as an adamantium right hook but certainly may be a little more than you want to know before going into the movie.

I’ve had kind of a hit and miss reaction to the X-Men all my life. My first experience with them was with a few reprints I had in a British annual in the early seventies which reprinted old Marvel comics called Fantastic annual. It basically reprinted almost exclusively Avengers and X-Men comics from what I remember in my hazy recollections of a dim and distant past. In fact, I believe these reprints were from the very early sixties and possibly one of them was even a reproduction of the first issue, which originally debuted in 1963. I didn’t mind this original line-up of Professor X, Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Angel, Iceman and Beast... in fact out of all the line-ups that came after, these are probably about the only X-Men I could probably handle reading today. And, of course, to me they were never the X-Men... they were always known by the title which they’d originally gone under in their early days. Much like The Amazing Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor, The Incredible Hulk and The Invincible Iron Man, these guys were... and always shall be in my mind... The Uncanny X-Men.

So when a desperate sea-change hit the title with the Giant-Sized X-Men of 1975, one last bid to actually sell these comics before total cancellation - which, given the success of the line-up introduced in this issue and their continued popularity in the medium, may surprise some people - I was never really that interested. Most of the original line-up had been dropped and Weapon-X had been rechristened Wolverine and... really... I was just as oblivious to these guys' existence as I had been to anything but those early reprints I used to read and I stayed that way, pretty much, until the first of the big budget X-Men movies hit our screens back in 2000. And to be honest I wasn’t much interested in seeing them on film either but I went to take a look anyway.

I was glad I did because that first X-Men movie was the first movie to actually take a Marvel comics character, or a set of characters in this case, and actually make a genuinely entertaining and fairly credible and coherent movie out of them. This was nothing like going to see a double bill of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger featured with Spiderman and the Dragon’s Challenge! And when the money came in from this first one and the X-Men became a franchise... it turned out that the second movie was as good, if not even better than the first movie. The director Bryan Singer did a really good job on these two movies and had set up everything for a brilliant third installment.

Alas, a brilliant third installment was not in the cards. Singer was kinda... well not exactly fired from the franchise due to personal differences with one of the “suits with money” is my understanding but he certainly felt discouraged enough with the ensuing “lead swinging” that he eventually left to work on a superhero project for a rival company (both character-wise and studio wise... DC and Warner Bros) and another director was brought on board. The end result of all this shilly-shallying around was unfortunate... we ended up with both a really terrible dud of a third X-Men movie and... surprisingly... a not so hot Superman sequel too.

After that, everyone had thought the X-Men "juggernaut" (see what I did there?) had come to a halt but we got a little surprise with a prequel in the form of Wolverine: X-Men Origins with Hugh Jackman reprising his role as the titular character. Now Wolverine wasn’t a great movie but it was certainly several notches up on the washability level than that third X-Men film and even though it basically had the feel of an early eighties B-movie exploitation flick to a degree, albeit with a tidy sum of money thrown at it, it didn’t completely let down the franchise in the way its predecessor did (my review of that one is here if you’re at all interested).

But seriously, did we really need a fifth X-Men movie (or a Wolverine movie for that matter). Well the answer, honestly, is no! We did not. Conceptually it’s just a money making exercise trying to capture those original two lightning strikes that Singer gave the studio back at the start of the 21st Century (wow... I keep forgetting we’re all living in the 21st Century now... where’s my rocket pack?). But then follow that up with another question and you have yourself a different perspective on things.

So then, Question Number Two is... Do I mind there being yet another sequel, or in this case prequel, to the X-Men movies? And the answer to that one has to be... well, no I don’t mind as long as it’s any good. But what are the chances of that after the last big screw up on the series. A lot of people are going to be put off showing up in cinemas on account of that third movie (they have, apparently... it’s not made its money back yet... it’ll probably get there and it came in at Number One in the charts but... a disappointing Number One box office take by all accounts).

And of course, the inevitable question arising from those last two questions is this? Is it any good?

Well that’s why I write reviews like this and waffle on for a page or so before I even get to the point of writing the damned thing is my answer to that. Or to put it another way...

Yes. It’s good. it’s very, very good. But allow me to be a little more articulate in my annunciation of said conclusion...

Actually... I’ll use a tactic I’ve adopted a couple of times just recently and tell you one thing it isn’t first. It’s not a bloody reboot!

Nor is it a remake or in any way a re-imagining of the initial series... and don’t let anyone tell you it is. This one here is definitely a prequel and... not only that... but it’s a prequel in the very best sense. It’s a prequel that actually works with everything that’s been established within the chronology of the previous movies and without resorting to any George Lucas-like jiggery pokery and wild leaps of the imagination. This one is the real deal and the only retro-fitting which had to be done on this one was to set it in the sixties (during the Cuban missile crisis, in fact... which is a part of the plot) and sell that period with a certain amount of style and verisimilitude... and get it accepted by an audience that might get turned off by a period piece.

The movie starts off with the World War 2 concentration camp opening sequence of the original X-Men movie reshot (but using the late Michael Kamen’s score from that sequence from that movie) but this time you stay with the very young Erik Lehnsherr for a while and see what shaped his life choices before cutting to the very young Charles Xavier and his first encounter with Raven, aka the future Mystique. Then we skip right into the sixties and we have Charles played by James MacAvoy... who surprised me by being quite brilliant in a genre film and Erik as played by Michael Fassbender... who has more than enough screen presence to carry the whole movie on this one... except he doesn’t have to because, well I could go on but everyone on this movie was brilliant.

Fassbender starts off as pretty much a hit man, hellbent on a quest for vengeance against Kevin Bacon’s evil bad-guy and joins up almost accidentally with Xavier when Xavier rescues him at the tail end of a mission for which he’s been recruited by the CIA. The two join up with the aforementioned CIA and some other mutants and start the equivalent of Xavier’s future school to train up a group of mutants for a dangerous mission... a dangerous mission which should gain Erik access to the target of his revenge fuelled killing spree.

Frankly, for a movie with something like a 12A rated certificate, X-Men: First Class certainly doesn’t pull its punches, too often, although the revelation of a female version of Angel looks like it’s had a little censorial tinkering, for example. There are scenes of implied sexuality and more than implied violence that had my eyebrows raised at their inclusion in a family orientated movie. The scene towards the end of the movie which involves the very slow manipulation of a Nazi coin, for instance, may have been a bit out of place for the rating... but I should worry. I’m not complaining and I love on-screen violence and sexuality (and I also love off-screen sexuality so can have my cake and eat it... if I get lucky) but I do think parents contemplating taking their children to see this one should take a look at the movie first.

There’s a lot to like in this movie including some shrewd iconic references to films like From Russia With Love (if I’m not mistaken about a certain helicopter arriving at a certain kind of Manor House) and possibly a little nod to Doris Day in Caprice? There’s also a couple of great cameos from folks from previous installments... namely Hugh Jackman as Wolverine/Logan and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. “What?” I hear you ask. “In a prequel?” Yeah, I’d be worried too... but I wasn’t because I didn’t know they were coming and as it turns out, Jackman’s appearance makes a perfect punchline to the first of two unusually lengthy montage sequences... the first is a series of Mutant spotting trips undertaken by Charles & Erik and the second is a get-a-handle-on-yer-powers training sequence. And then, the Rebecca Romijn as Mystique cameo is really cleverly done... and it involves sexuality so I’m all for it anyway.

One cameo which was missing and which felt bad to have been left out was Stan Lee. This must be the first Marvel film in the last ten or eleven years in which he hasn’t had a little appearance and that makes me sad. Apparently Twentieth Century Fox didn’t ask him to do one for this movie. He seems to roll with it though. On a Q&A panel I saw on the internet with him he jokingly said that it’s a ploy on the part of Fox to get everyone to think they’ve missed Stan’s cameo... and then go buy another ticket to see it again and try to spot him. Stan’s still "the Man" when it comes to being a true figurehead for the comics industry. A real trooper and I can’t wait to see his favourite cameo appearance in the upcoming The Amazing Spiderman later in the year.

But that’s not what I’m here to discuss... let me get back to it before I lose the plot completely.

X-Men: First Class has a real good sense of pacing and never once feels like its 132 minute running time. It explores the universe of the characters it deals with in an imaginative and satisfying way but also holds some stuff back while alluding to them in a way that leaves you intrigued rather than bored. More than enough material for a sequel and I’d really want to see one (although the box office return on this one so far makes this less likely than I’d hope for). Heck... it even has genre favourite Michael Ironside in it... although he seems to have been thrown away to very near the bottom of the credits and just credited as M. Ironside (what up with that?) but hey, he’s in it.

Also, the musical score by Henry Jackman is minimalist but quite driven and pounding and reminded me of Bernard Herrmann's technique of using small cells of melody repeated over and over for effect. This is not necessarily a bad thing and minimalist genius Philip Glass has made a decent living out of writing this kind of repeat style for decades now so I’m certainly not complaining. You’ll either love it or hate it in terms of the scoring I reckon.

X-Men: First Class definitely gets a solid and frankly, surprising recommendation from me but I do, however, feel compelled to give you final few readers who have actually made it to the end of this unexpectedly long article a final word of warning which may aid you if you see the film. If you are planning on sitting through every last second of the end credits on this one so you can watch the post-credits tag sequence which most of the other Marvel movies (the X-Men franchise included) usually have on them, then you’ll be disappointed. By all means watch the credits but don’t expect any added extras on this one... you’ll have to wait for the DVD for the bonuses this time around.

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