Tuesday, July 19, 2011

“X-Men: First Class” Brings the Story Back to the Beginning

There are a number of memorable characters in director Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” but I won’t be mentioning them all. You can and should meet them for yourselves.

Full disclosure: I have missed several films in this franchise, and I don’t recall the comics at all. This stood me in good stead to thoroughly enjoy “X-Men: First Class,” for in addition to the film’s own merits (which are many), the story held more suspense and uncertainties for me than for avid fans and aficionados. Not quite recalling, I could wonder, “Was not she with Magneto in the first film? What’s she doing here? Who’s this dude? And what’s Kevin Bacon got to do with it all?

The film opens as “X-Men” did, in 1944, at the separation of young Erik Lehnsherr from his parents entering the concentration camp. Some go left, some go right. Erik’s anger and despair manifest in the shaking and bending and rending of the metal gates — with his mind. Dr. Schmidt (the fun-loving Kevin Bacon) teaches him control through torture as if he were a lab animal.

Meanwhile, in Westchester, we meet 12-year-old Charles Xavier coming upon someone disguised as his neglectful mother in the kitchen. This is young Raven, disguised from her true blue form, which she will later call “Mystique.” Charles takes her in, despite the fact that he’s a child himself. Neglectful parents can be useful that way.

World War II chills into the Cold War. James McAvoy as the grown-up Charles Xavier is having fun at university and making his adoptive sister Raven (the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence) quite jealous. As we pull up to 1962, Erik Lehnsherr, too, is quite grown up. This tortured soul is now played by Michael Fassbender, describing himself as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in a search of the Nazi doctor. Following the money, Erik travels to Switzerland, then to South America, then to the United States to find his “creator,” who now goes by the name Sebastian Shaw.

Some things Kevin Bacon said as Dr. Schmidt (and his other persona, Sebastian Shaw) nagged at me, a little bitty niggling in one part of my brain, while the rest had a fine time. He kept talking about the Atomic Age, which started in the 1940s, so why would it have affected him, already a middle-aged man in 1944? Mind you, I enjoyed him. Bacon does a jolly Nazi doctor, megalomaniac, egomaniac, and accomplished all that was required of a dastardly villain with relish. A little chewy, but fun.

Ah, that danged split atom. So many complications it spawned. Rushing the natural selection of evolution into high gear. Although I don’t quite understand why or how Shaw came to be a mutant, he has some nifty powers that make him tough to kill and allow him to retain his youthful appearance 15 years after we first see him. Bacon’s big grin dominates his manipulation of the American and Russian military, and throughout his evil is gleeful. He also has a nifty helmet his Nazi buddies designed for him that blocks psychic intrusions. More on that anon.

Erik and Charles first meet because of Shaw, and because of Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) — Moira saw the impossible, accepted it, then sought out Professor Xavier. Even more difficult, she convinced the CIA and the military to include Xavier in their search for a missing general. What they found and lost was Sebastian Shaw and his entourage. What they found and kept was Erik Lehnsherr in a fantastic display of his control of metal and magnetic fields, and his utter lack of control over himself.

From here the story moves along briskly, Charles and Erik displaying their mutant abilities to one another and discovering those of Shaw and his minions, while searching out mutants to join the good guy fold. These two actors are splendid, vying with one another for intensity.  Friendship and trust develop between the two men without slowing the action.   It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s far sadder than one might expect.

The learned Horvendile in his blog about this film writes an intriguing analysis of styles in Marvel and DC Comics, in which he explains that in the early years of the comic book series, the paths of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (later “Magneto”) did not cross in their youths. Happily the comic book series rewrote history twenty years into the run, and had them meet as young men, thus inspiring a great story of friends turning against one another — like two brothers in a civil war; or the Virginian and Trampas (that’s American literature, Owen Wister’s stories of two boisterous and virtuous young men who make different moral choices that make them enemies). This historic friendship between Charles and Erik makes their enmity as they lead their people on opposite sides of the struggle all the more poignant. Instead of merely showing a right-minded hero and an ornery villain, the heartbreak is built in.

Erik cannot give up the search for “Schmidt,” who brought out his anger and despair and thereby his power to move and manipulate metals. How ironic that Erik’s worst enemies, the Nazis, made the helmet that will eventually protect him from the probing mind of his only friend, Charles Xavier. Michael Fassbender is a many-layered actor as he becomes the Magneto we recognize. He sees a world that forces him to the outside because of his mutation, just as in his youth the world forced him to the outside because he was a Jew. What he doesn’t see is hope.
James McAvoy as Charles Xavier (Marvel)

What Charles Xavier — whether played by James McAvoy or Patrick Stewart — sees everywhere is hope. Not so tough since he came from a privileged background. He is a mutant due to his psychic abilities, but not only are these capabilities invisible, they afford him great power. Yes, this young man, never tortured, never without, never ashamed, uses his power for good. Erik speaks for the cynical among us when he remarks sarcastically upon what a “difficult” environment of luxury Charles was brought up in. An argument for nurture over nature in a film about mutants?

Matthew Vaughn’s direction is brisk even while it gives loving attention to the main characters, their relationships, their powers, and the booms and crashes and light shows those powers create in play and in battle.

Government folk: Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert believes what she sees and becomes a staunch supporter of the (not yet named) X-Men. Ms. Byrne’s style is simple and true, and I readily believed she was Moira. Oliver Platt made an all-too-brief appearance as the Man in Black. Likewise Ray Wise as the Secretary of State stating dreadful things. Let’s hope he reappears. And the under-sung Matt Craven as CIA Director McCone was governmental, annoying, predictable, and then human, in the best sense.

The mutants on either side of the battle don’t stand out so much individually but work very well together: Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (later Beast), Caleb Landry Jones as Sean Cassidy (Banshee), Edi Gathegi as Armando Munox (Darwin), Lucas Till as Alex Summers (Havoc), Alex Gonzalez as Janus Quested (Riptide), and Jason Flemyng as Azazel. While Zoë Kravitz looked good as Angel Salvadore, she was lusterless.

Eva Magyar’s brief appearance as Erik’s mother was raw and heart wrenching. Charles’ and Erik’s lack of mothers in opposite ways gave opposite effects.

As for Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, how brilliant is this young woman. In the 2010 release “Winter’s Bone” she gave a gritty performance as the unglamorous Ree Dolly, then follows it up in 2011 with the young Mystique in this healthy Marvel franchise. She and/or her agent are geniuses. And then of course, there’s her phenomenal acting. She embodies this child — for really, Raven, her name in her “disguise” of a non-mutant, is just a teenager, a pouting adolescent, jealous of her adoptive brother Charles, who comes to soar with joy at her new found fellow-mutant friends, finally finding herself torn between two points of view, two modes of behavior, more than two identities, and two men.
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique (Credit:  Marvel)

The funniest scene is the one out of time, in which the two mutant buddies approach Hugh Jackman’s surly Wolverine in a bar, and back away at his foul-mouthed response to their civil greeting. (This gives Jackman the questionable honor of being the only actor to play the same comic book superhero in five movies.) Another nod for fans of the earlier films is a very brief appearance by Rebecca Romijn. Look for it.

Vaughn and screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman (based on a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer, who is also a producer of the film and director of the first two “X-Men” films) go back to the beginning of Bryan Singer’s vision of this Marvel comics tale and do it more than justice. They’ve revived the saga with characters and actors as powerful and engrossing as their predecessors. James McAvoy boldly steps into the footsteps of young Charles Xavier, allowing us glimpses of Patrick Stewart’s future Professor X; and Michael Fassbender introduces us to the Erik who will become Ian McKellan’s Magneto.

There are some drab bits. January Jones looks good for Emma Frost but does nothing. Everyone else stood up from those comic book pages, but she might still have been frozen there. Someone should have told her that even mutants have emotions and humor.

All in all, this is an excellent addition to the “X-Men” series of films, with a fast-moving storyline, plenty of action (all of it visually comprehensible, unlike some other “action” films I could name), humor, deep characterizations, and proof that the “Others” among us are as human as we are.
The good guys...... (Credit:  Marvel)

How do I know this film gets it right? It makes me want to go back to the “beginning” of the film series to see what happens next.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light. I have stacks of comic books to go through.

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