Monday, December 31, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #1: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class. The movie that topped the list forever. As a matter of fact, this movie ranked #1 over all until I conceded it to #2 in order to settle another ranking argument--it was my bargaining chip. And because this movie and the other #1 ranker are so close, I was ok with the concession. The difference is by a hair. Seriously. Luckily, we decided at the last minute to make it a tie, so really, what WAS #2, is now sharing its crown in the 1st Place Spot. Where I wanted it to be.

Obviously I think pretty highly of this movie. I saw it 2-3 times in the theater. It was a blockbuster summer for Marvel Movies, with Thor and Captain America rounding things out, but this film was a bit under the radar. I wasn't even really aware it was coming out until right before it did; I knew virtually nothing about it. It made me a bit nervous.

Why nervous? Well, there was a little movie called X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And as we wrote, it was awful. But it turns out, that's not even the movie that I wound up thinking about while writing this review. No, like my obsession with The Incredible Hulk vs. Iron Man, X-Men: First Class goes head-to-head with summer-release-mate Captain America.

You've got two similar concepts--super hero origin stories set in a period backdrop of political conflict (Cuban missile crisis for X-Men: First Class/World War II for Captain America). One executes a flawlessly believable and meticulously detailed early 1960s world stage; the other executes a hokey, half-assed, inattentive quasi-WW2 era backdrop. One is a smooth spy thriller involving a mutant strike team, one is a sloppy summer action movie that fails on most levels.

Since I saw X-Men: First Class before seeing Captain America... you can figure it out. Hell, I saw Super 8 before seeing Captain America, and I think it managed to nail "period piece" more adroitly.

This movie isn't without its faults. It has them. I would have liked a little less convenience surrounding Beast's transformation/romance with Mystique. But it wasn't jarring, and it wasn't a crucial plot point or anything. It moved the plot along, sure, but you could have just as easily conveyed the story without it.

The star of the show is the relationship between Magneto and Professor X. Or, as they are called in this film, Erik and Charles. What's nice here is they let this pivotal relationship be troubled but enduring. By the end, when their philosophies have diverged permanently, you can still see that between the two of them exists some understanding and compassion. There are shades of this in the other X-Men films, but it has been best illustrated here.

I thoroughly enjoy Kevin Bacon's unexpected performance as Sebastian Shaw. He rather steals the show, in fact. I like him as a conniving, behind-the-scenes player orchestrating world politics, rather than resorting to overt terrorism (Liberty Island in X-Men, for example.) It results in a slower-burning, larger-scale conflict interwoven somewhat smartly into existing history, in a way that doesn't piss me off. Sure, it's incredibly unlikely, and I know better, but this is also a world with mutants in it, it closely involves "top secret" style dealings, and they don't do anything remarkably stupid while they are monkeying with history. Scenes are tense and not "oh, how coincidental!" at all.

I enjoy the multilingual nature of the film. It globe-trots with the ease and experience of a Connery Bond film. Michael Fassbender is quickly earning a top slot on my "Celebrity Crushes" list. Not because he's pretty (have you even seen the list?) but because he seems so authentic. Anyone who can charm me as an android, Carl Jung and Magneto deserves special note. The quietly skillful nature of this film is most evident as Fassbender glides between German, French, Spanish, and English as he tracks Shaw across hemispheres. We are also treated to Russian for good measure. I prefer subtitles--unless a film is intended for an English-speaking audience and the vast majority of dialogue would be delivered in another language (for example, The Hunt for Red October). 

Now, if you read my Captain America evisceration, you'll know that design aesthetic is one of my top pet peeves. Nothing tanks a period piece like bad sets, costumes and anachronistic concepts. Luckily, First Class doesn't seem to fall for those traps. I think that's especially clear when we see Cerebro for the first time.

Why does this stand out? After being treated to this gem, it makes all the anachronistic computer displays and TV monitors of Captain America about as welcome as Saruman in Rivendell during the events of The Hobbit.

Cerebro looks like a computer of the early sixties. As a matter of fact, it looks enough like what it's supposed to look like I didn't feel the need to pick it apart. It may not be totally Kosher, but I'm willing to let that slide a little, seeing as how it was invented by a wunderkind with complete access to the resources of the CIA. It's not a modern device with a 60s skin attached. Did I mention that, like with the TV issue on Captain America, I also have fondness for vintage computers?

I appreciate that this film side-steps the urge to call attention to its period trimmings. Since I've already brought it up, Super 8 had a real groaner in it, where we're supposed to look at the WACKY NEW WALKMAN ALL THE KIDS HAVE! IMAGINE HOW BAD IT WOULD BE IF ALL THE KIDS HAD PORTABLE MUSIC!

X-Men: First Class manages to not do this. Look, the early sixties are often a bit overlooked, because the late 60s/early 70s are really, really overpoweringly gaudy and garish. The early 1960s blends the class and civility of 50s design with the beginnings of sleek super mod, and the results are things like Shaw's submarine/yacht, the Hellfire Club, and really swank barware. It's done here just right, in little touches like wallpaper or lamps, or clothing.

Through and through, though, this is truly a wonderful story of team building and friendship. It's exciting, it doesn't need to make you crazy, and it features some nice cameos that almost tie it to the other X-men films...but it easily stands alone. Its faults only run as far as "was that little subplot necessary?" but nothing in the film is so distracting or meaningless that it ruins it. I think this is a tight, sophisticated reinterpretation that is a welcome change of pace from a super-hero slugfest--something not even the previous X-men installments were able to avoid.

I really feel that, of all the wonderful films on our list, this one tops it out. It has the fewest problems and the best attention to detail. It even manages to be smart at the same time, even at the end. Sure, it's an unbelievable story, but 'tis a tale of mutants, after all.

Best part of the film. Hands down!

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