Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

We got to the theater a little bit early, so we saw a lot of TNT previews and what felt like 45 minutes of Tom Hanks plugging Larry Crowne. About halfway through, I started wondering if my insurance covered trepanning.

We had stopped at Wal-Mart and smuggled some candy into the theater. Jen brought Junior Mints, in homage to Jimmy Buffet and I brought Bottle Caps. When the advertisement told us "Refreshments are in the lobby," Jen yelled out "Or in my purse!"

Coming Attractions:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Boy, that trailer makes it look like a top notch music video.

The Change-Up - In the tradition of 80s Body Swap movies!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - This looks, surprisingly, not terrible. Also, I've liked Professor James Franco ever since his Freaks & Geeks days.

Okay, the movie. It opens with a young Magneto in a concentration camp, just like in the first movie. Then we cut to a scene of Charles and Mystique meeting as kids, and the actors they got for the roles were just adorable. 

Then it's back to the concentration camp. The evil Dr. Schmidt had seen what the boy did with the metal gates when he was taken away from his parents, so he tries to get him to reproduce it with a metal coin. The boy is unsuccessful and so, in a later trial, Schmidt has the boy's mother brought in, and tells him that he is going to count to three, and if the coin hasn't moved, then he'll shoot the mother. Schmidt slowly counts to three in German, and then fires, killing her and causing young Magneto's powers to tear up the office and kill the soldiers present by crushing their metal helmets. (He screams "NEEEIIIIINNNN!!" showing, I suppose, that it's okay to make your characters yell "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" as long as they do it in German.)  Far from being upset at the death of his men, Schmidt is delighted, declaring "Wunderbar!"

Fast forward a couple years to 1962 and Magneto is now a grown man with full control of his powers. I've always liked Magneto. If you'll forgive the digression, when asked about themes in his work, Roger Zelazny mentioned a number of things, including,  "a hate so big it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty", and that's what comes to mind when I think of Magneto.

I was looking for my favorite Magneto moments and I found them in the first issue of the 1991 X-Men series. At this point, he's absented himself from Earth entirely, returning only when a group of mutant refugees find their way to his doorstep.

I would love this as a wraparound design on a t-shirt.

Later on, he heads on down to the Earth to raise a Russian sub. Previously, the sub had launched a missile at him. Magneto deflected it, then sank the submarine as object lesson. He's raising it now to salvage the nukes for his own use. I really love how these panels are put together here.

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They fight and the battle continues below deck, where Magneto stumbles on the remains of the crew. This is another sequence that I really love.

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My favorite part of X-Men 2 is when Wolverine and the kids who managed to escape from the school are at Bobby Drake's house and Bobby's little brother calls the police on them and they surround the house. Pyro is there, and he's this cocky little kid, but he only has that attitude because he's so scared. And then there is a point where he lashes out at these people, ("You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about on the news? I'm the worst one.") and I think there is something about that with Magneto. He does the wrong thing for the right reason.

And it's hard to pigeonhole him, because the character has been in circulation for almost fifty years (he was introduced in 1963) and written by dozens of different authors in the time. So anyone with any opinion at all about Magneto can find textual support for it somewhere. His creator, Stan Lee, said of him in a 2008 interview,  that he didn't think of Magneto as "a bad guy". "He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course... but I never thought of him as a villain."

Anyway, back to the movie. I would watch an entire movie of Magneto - Nazi Hunter. The scene at the villa in Argentina was extraordinarily well done.

The villain of the piece is Sebastian Shaw.

After the Emperor blasts him with his Force Lightning, the life support on his suit fails and he says goodbye to his son, Luke Skywalker. (Oops, not that Sebastian Shaw!) 

I like Sebastian Shaw. I like Kevin Bacon. It's hard to reconcile the two, but I like the character Bacon plays in the movie, even if I have a hard time seeing that character as Sebastian Shaw.

Eventually Xavier and Magneto team up, and join with the CIA. We get a bit of sublime continuity porn with a reference to Agent Stryker's son, William, who was the villain in X-2.

Nicholas Hoult as Hank is McCoy endearingly awkward. There's a scene where he's having a little picnic with Mystique, complete with those 60s era glass Coke bottles (which was really an inspired stroke and kudos to whichever person in the prop department took care of it). I'm not sure where it's supposed to be. There are these big fan blades, so maybe it's some kind of jet propulsion lab where they tested the Blackbird. I dunno. It's some out of the way place. They're having this conversation, and then Magneto comes strolling past in his black turtleneck to drop a cryptic observation. It was like a Calvin Klein commercial.

I really liked the recruiting montage. (I also liked the quick exchange where McCoy says something about getting better reception from Cerebro if Xavier would let him shave his head and Xavier tells him not to touch his hair.) But the recruiting bits were all pretty great, and the Wolverine cameo was brilliant. I liked Ron Weasely, even if he was calling himself Banshee.

Once all these young mutants are recruited, there's a scene where they're giving each other code names and showing off their powers, and I liked it for two reasons. 1.) It seemed like something that young people would do in these circumstances and 2.) It was just fun to watch. When they get busted by the adult mutants, Jen quipped it was like "Risky Business for mutants."

Magento and Xavier leave to go with a strike force to Russia to take out Shaw, but when they get there, they find that Emma Frost is there instead. There's a nice bit where she "seduces" this Soviet general, except she's just using her telepathy to make him think that he's getting it on with her, and she's really sitting on a chair next to the bed, eating a cracker.

And up until this point, I thought all the comments about January Jones's acting being the weak point in the movie were needlessly harsh, and they were misinterpreting Emma Frost's aloofness. But no, she really is pretty awful (though she's awful pretty, so I can see why they cast her) and I'm convinced that she's actually just a mannequin with a good agent. With a name like January Jones, though, she's a shoe-in to be the next Bond Girl. (Jen suggested that she could be a centerfold, because, you know, she's already "Miss January".)

Meanwhile, Shaw and his mutants attack the CIA lab where the mutants are staying. They give the chance to join up. Darwin is killed trying to resist them, proving that even mutant powers are no protection against the Black Guy Dies First rule.

They regroup, then move up to the X-Mansion up in Westchester. Again, the montage is really excellent. This time it's a training montage, with everyone fine-tuning the use of their powers. After a time, they see JFK's address on TV, and they realize that Shaw is finally acting, and tomorrow they will have to intervene to stop him.

They turn in and Magneto finds the teenaged Mystique in his bed, ready to seduce him. He says, "Maybe when you're twenty years older," and she transforms into Rebecca Romijn, who played Mystique as an adult, which was another great cameo. Afterwards, she talks to Xavier in the kitchen. She's having the slow realization that Xavier and Magneto have different goals and that her goals are more in line with Magneto's. I love her line, "Pets are cuter when they're little."

So the X-Men all take off in the Blackbird and they avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. Something I think I saw, but of which I'm not entirely certain is that when the jet is hit and spinning out of control, Magneto throws himself on top of Xavier, and then uses his powers to clamp himself to the metal floor in order to protect him. It was pretty chaotic, and I'm not absolutely certain that's what happened, but if it is, it was an excellent detail.

How many times is a mutant called Angel going to show up in the X-movies? When Shaw's mutants are emerging from the ruined sub to face off against the X-Men, well, let's have a roll call. Riptide summons these devastating tempests, Azazel is this horrifying teleporting ninja demon assassin dude, and then Angel unfurls her little cutesy dragonfly wings. flutter-flutter-flutter I mean, Jesus. Which of these kids is doing her own thing?

Magneto confronts Shaw and when he is helpless, he levitates the Nazi coin we saw in the beginning of the movie and says, "I'm going to count to three. And I'm going to move the coin," in an excellent but tremendously gruesome callback to the earlier scene. He kills Shaw by slowly pushing the coin all the way through his head.

Once the crisis has been averted, the Americans and the Soviets decide that mutants are the bigger threat than the other side, so they each authorize their assembled ships to launch a strike against the survivors. Magneto freezes the barrage in midair, where they hang for a moment, and then he turns them around and sends them back against the ships that launched them. I couldn't help but think of Gob in Arrested Development when they showed the Navy Captain looking through a pair of binoculars at his own missiles coming back at him.

Xavier begs Magneto to stop, saying, "They're just following orders! Like Eichmann!" (I'm paraphrasing here) an argument Magneto fails to find persuasive.

Catastrophe is averted, though Xavier is paralyzed by a stray bullet deflected by Magneto. Magneto and his evil mutants depart, and we cut to Westchester, where Moira is pushing Charles in his familiar X-logo wheelchair. She tells him that his secrets are safe with her, and he says he knows they are, and then gives her a kiss of forgetfulness, which I thought was kind of a dick move, because it costs her her career at the CIA.

Jen said that aside from a couple scenes like the Missile Crisis and elements like mini-skirts, it didn't really seem like a period piece. Xavier's talk of "Groovy mutations" aside, I have to agree. Havoc in particular looked like he stepped out of One Tree Hill. (Also, the less said about his hula hooping power, the better). The few small complaints I have here should in no way detract from what may be the best X-Men movie yet. (I'd have to watch X-2 again before I can say for sure.) Excellent film. One of the all-time great comic book movies. There are plans to make this the first film in a trilogy of prequels, and I'm not sure if that's something I want or not. This one was so great that it's set the bar extremely high for followups, and I think I might be happy with just this one by itself.


  1. Josh's wife: "Two thumbs up!" Or for any mutant readers: however many thumbs you have!

  2. Hey Josh -- Bob W here. As always, love your commentary, Josh. Your review lit a fire under my ass to go see the movie, which I just did this afternoon. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I would say the key to a good supers genre film is to convey plausibility on the part of characters, motivations, and plot. Brian Singer's script and Matthew Vaughan's direction managed to do this on all counts. There were of course bits that made me smile . . . the Coast Guardsmen and the teen X-Men during their Russian infiltration all being armed with AR-15s and M4 Carbines was anachronistic -- especially since their precursor (the M16A1) wouldn't be invented until 1963, and wasn't issued to troops until 1965. And the image of Boris the Blade as a Soviet Rocket Forces General was amusing (especially his "foreplay" with Emma Frost). But these are minor quibbles with what is a good prequel.

    What I find most interesting though is the undercurrent theme of how the X-Men franchise is successfully (in film, anyway), charting a nuanced account of diversity and civil rights throughout their films. In some cases this has proven heavy handed (X-Men 3). But it is nevertheless part of an ongoing effort by Stan Lee and other Marvel creators to recast the American Ideal in a lens that favors inclusion and rejects parochialism. I know, Marvel's now part of a larger corporate Disney World View . . . but that doesn't weaken the impact of Lee's (and Kirby's and Ditko's, and etc.) message of inclusion. Recall as well that these creators all came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, and worked in the industry from its infancy. Interestingly, the tone of comics through the 40s and 50s was one of homogeneity and conformity -- created by second generation Eastern European Jews, people who had been themselves cast in a negative light, or at best, reduced to a shadow status, during the immediate postwar era. In creating their new generation of superheros for Marvel, the Silver Age creators not only took on the staid conformity of the prior decade, they also took on the challenges of what American identity meant, and the internal conflicts and contradictions concealed within it. This message resonates throughout the X-Men books more than any other, and I think helps make this particular series more relevant, perhaps, than any of the other super films after the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films.

    Of course, just like Freud's cigar, a movie is just a movie. Can't wait to see what you think, though, and to see your response to Captain America. That's the one supers film I'm looking forward to this summer.