X-Men: First Class

I am officially declaring it now – the summer movie season is upon us. Yes, some may say it kicked off during May with such big-name flicks as Thor or the ever floptacular Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but honestly, X-men: First Class truly starts off what one hopes will be a continuing trend of renewal and redemption for several major series.

I was a fan of the original X-men trilogy, although X3 seemed to wilt a little without the Singer touch. But Singer returns with a writing credit and a little production input, to bring us a revitalization to the X-men franchise. Singer gave appropriate nods to his original X-men series (including two cameos, one of which is worth the ticket purchase alone – no spoilers though) to keep them valid and intertwined with the new film, but left room to explore brand new territory. By setting the film against the Cuban missile crisis, it gives the film a unique real-world connection while adding that science fiction, super-powered flair we all love in a good superhero movie. In addition to the real-world environment, we get a much deeper understanding of who these characters are beyond their powers. We see what drives them, what their flaws are, why they made the choices of which we saw the results in the previous three films. It is a well-rounded story with a lot of heart and a heck of a lot of action.

Little known X-men History: Charles and Erik loved playing hide and seek. Given that Charles was a mind-reader, Erik always lost.

(For those familiar with the series, you may skip this paragraph.) For those who may not be familiar with the concept, First Class focuses on the initial formation of the X-men, a group of people with genetic mutations which manifest themselves in the form of super-human abilities. The film is a prequel of sorts to the X-men trilogy which was released in the 2000s. It focuses on the two key players in the battle for human/mutant coexistence – Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Professor X and Magneto. Charles has the ability to read and control minds, Erik the ability to control magnetism.  Focusing on their backgrounds we see glimpses of Erik’s childhood as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, contrasted with Charles’ wealthy upbringing in America. Charles focuses his energies on studying genetics and mutations, Erik is hellbent on revenge. Eventually their paths come together, and under the supervision of the government, they locate and recruit a group of young mutants with diverse powers in order to form a team to defeat Sebastian Shaw, a man who is manipulating the U.S. and Russian governments in an effort to start WWIII for his own diabolical purposes.

Now that everyone is caught up to speed on the premise, how does the film stack up?

Sylar developed the super-human ability to jump over sharks on water skis after telekinetically lobotimizing the Fonz.

In a way, I feel like this is exactly what I needed after enduring Heroes for four uneventful seasons. I will sidestep briefly to explain my disappointment with Heroes. This show started with an interesting premise – regular people who develop super-human abilities. The problem is, barring a few brief episodes in chapter 1 and a sort of side plot in season 3, these people spent most of their time avoiding using their powers. While everyone at home is on the edge of their seats waiting to catch a few minutes worth of super-powered effects buried amongst tangled and unnecessarily elaborate plot arcs in each 45-minute episode, you could practically hear the producers saying “Oh no, effects like that will be too expensive to produce. Avoid them at all cost!” They also got tangled up in attempting to rework their concept to address what they viewed as “fan feedback”, and ultimately ended up ruining all the things which gave the show substance. Heroes effectively “jumped the shark” shortly into season 2 and never really recovered.

Now, back to X-men.

Although we see a somewhat reluctance in some of the mutants to use their abilities, ultimately we see an embracing of their purpose. In addition, we get a chance to see not only practical applications of their abilities, but also what happens when these powers are unleashed. There are several awe-inspiring scenes with Erik as a child, one of which is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the concentration camp scene from the original film. This film did for X-men what Star Wars: The Force Unleashed did for the Force of the Star Wars universe – showed what real people would do if they had these abilities in these situations, and they definitely wouldn’t hold back.

"Hi, I'm Magneto. I'm a fictional character. Move on with your life and enjoy the movie."

The biggest critiques coming toward this film have to do with the consistency of the storyline with that of the comic history.  There are a few necessary deviations in age of characters or background stories in order to make a more concise story arc. The fan boys will be up in arms that every minute detail isn’t as it was in the original material. But the fact of the matter is this, just as with any lengthy series derived from a written text – Harry Potter (7 books), The Chronicles of Narnia (7 books), Lord of the Rings (technically 6 books) – some details must be skimmed, omitted, or adjusted in order to fit them into a 2-3 hour timeslot. Let’s face it the X-men story spans hundreds of comics over decades of writing, there’s no way you’re going to get every detail into a film. So if you’re going looking for 100% accuracy, prepare to nitpick your way out of enjoying the film.

My Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon: I was an extra in Election with Matthew Broderick --> who was in The Producers with Nathan Lane --> who was in The Birdcage with Robin Williams --> who was in Bicentennial Man with Oliver Platt --> who was in X-men: First Class with Kevin Bacon. Booya.

The actors, did an excellent job embodying their respective parts. McAvoy and Fassbender, lend their interpretation on the characters artfully personified by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and provide a fantastic bridge between the two portrayals. Jennifer Lawrence, recently nominated for an Oscar for her role in Winter’s Bone, gives a notable performance as Mystique, adding some much welcome character development behind the eye-candy that was Rebecca Romaine in the original films. And of course, this film adds a link in everyone’s “6-Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, who gave a delightful performance as the villain.

Overall, this film was an absolutely enjoyable experience at the movies, and I sincerely look forward to the inevitable sequel that will most likely ensue. I’ve heard it described as X-men meets one of the old-school James Bond films, and I can agree with that assessment. The key is – this film is a good movie that just happens to be about super heroes, which isn’t always the case with Marvel and DCs cinematic outings. It’s definitely worth the time and money to soak in the scale on the big screen.

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X2: X-Men United

X2 X-Men UnitedWith 2000’s X-Men, director Bryan Singer reassured moviegoers who grew disenchanted after years of mediocre schlock like Batman and Robin, The Punisher, and Howard the Duck, that comic book movies could be fantastical and far-fetched while still remaining firmly grounded in reality.  Singer’s cast of mutants were portrayed as real humans with true-to-life struggles common to most of us ordinary folk:  relationships, identity crises, and fitting in.  It also delved far deeper into dark places of the human psyche, contained multi-faceted villains with compelling, even convincing, reasons for wanting to destroy all humanity, and a band of protagonists who were just as flawed as anyone we might meet in real life.  It was a revelation for what comic book movies could be, and sparked a decade of mature-themed comic book movies that culminated in 2008’s near-flawless The Dark Knight.

In short, the bar was set understandably high, and with the return to the X-Men universe with X2, Singer set out to craft a sequel that stayed true first and foremost to the characters and storyline, with whiz-bang special effects and giant action setpieces taking a back seat to character drama and interpersonal conflict.  And for the most part, X2 succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to continue the struggle between Magneto and Professor Xavier as well as the broader conflict of mutants and the rest of humanity.  It actually ups the ante of almost every aspect of its progenitor, but not just by adding bigger explosions and louder gunfights.

X2 focuses more on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, as ripped and overly-coiffed as ever) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), and picks up pretty soon after the first one left off.  Magneto is in a plastic prison, and Wolverine is searching for answers to his past at the mysterious Alkali Lake.  Throughout the course of the film’s two hours, Wolverine learns more than he ever bargained for and realizes he needs to let bygones be bygones and get the heck on with his life, while Magneto nearly realizes his ambition to wipe out the whole of humanity who are not (and therefore fear) mutants.

X2 Magneto

"Wingardium Leviosa!"

Along for the ride are a host of characters from the X-Men universe like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and all the rest of the usual suspects.  And while the US government, under influence from General Stryker, is hunting down mutants, the X-Men must unite with Magneto and Mystique to stop Stryker from implementing his plan.  Singer is a master at directing ensemble casts and delivering branching storylines, but at times the sheer weight of all the characters, conflicts, and backstories becomes a bit much to handle and some storylines get lost in the shuffle, particularly those of Rogue and Iceman.

What I find most compelling about the first two X-Men movies, though, is the motivation for all parties involved.  At no point are any of the nemeses out to destroy, enslave, punish, or otherwise harm humanity for the sheer monomaniacal desire of doing so.  Magneto, who experienced the result of fear and prejudice first-hand during his time in Nazi concentration camps, envisions a bleak future in which all mutants are cast out like their Jewish counterparts during Hitler’s regime.  And his desire to stop such a future is certainly understandable, if not one which could even be condoned.  Stryker’s son, we find out, is a mutant himself, and his father is so worried and afraid of what mutants could do to humanity that he would seem to be justified in his desire to bring down mutants across the world.  Even Professor X, brought to life with the utmost grace and charisma once again by the marvelous Patrick Stewart, who combined to a wheelchair could out-act nearly anyone else in the film save McKellan, wants only to create a future where mutants and humans can peacefully coexist.  And if that means stopping Magneto, so be it.

X2 Jean Grey and Storm

Jean Grey and Storm, fighting evil and bad hairdos.

There is also a wealth of social allegory in X2, though handled a bit more clumsily than I would have hoped.  “Can’t you just stop being a mutant?” asks Iceman’s confused mother when she finds out he too has special powers.  Faced with a chance to explore the issue of how we face our differences, Singer blows his opportunity and instead marginalizes all who dare to hold counter opinions and instead casts them as ignorant fools.  But all social commentary and characterization aside, X2 also delivers in spades what its predecessor only hinted at:  heapings of big-budget summer-movie action and PG-13 violence.  From the military attack on the Professor X’s school for mutants, to the fight between Wolverine and Deathstrike, to fight scene after fight scene, there’s enough action in X2 to satisfy Michael Bay fans while delivering Kubrick-level characters and Shawshank-style plotlines.  It’s a spectacle to behold (if you can forgive the laughable missile attack on the X-Men Blackbird) and is in nearly every way a worthy follow-up to the original.


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X-MenWhen I was a kid I used to watch Batman: The Animated Series after school while rolling up newspapers for my daily delivery route.  I wouldn’t say I was a hardcore fan of the show, but I did appreciate its mature subject matter and often heavyhanded treatment of moral and ethical issues.  Animated, yes, but far from a simple cartoon: it was an animated show that explored justice, morality, the dual nature of humanity and our need to create masks to hide our true nature.  Along with Batman were shows like Gargoyles and X-Men that treated their audiences with a greater level of respect, and assumed a greater level of maturity, than typical after school animated entertainment.  Sadly, I never got in to those two the same way I did with Batman.  In fact, as deep as the Batman mythology goes, one could argue that the X-Men mythos is far richer and replete with many more metaphors and messages that are as relevant to our society now as they ever were.  And it is this rich source material that director Bryan Singer, the mastermind behind the outstanding Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, draws on for his big-screen adaptation of X-Men.  For the most part, Singer succeeds in crafting a tight and engaging story that, despite the laundry list of characters and conflicts, manages to be not only entertaining but smart and full of delicious subtexts and metaphors for modern social conflicts.  Even though the special effects sometimes get out of hand, and the movie sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously for its own good, X-Men is an enjoyable film for those who like their buckets of popcorn large and buttery as well as those who prefer to spend evenings philosophizing at coffee shops.

X-Men Cyclops

Cyclops, the X-Men frat dude, about to unleash some optical fury up in this grill.

Because I spent my afternoons while growing up watching the Caped Crusader instead of legions of mutants, I know virtually nothing about the history and mythology of the X-Men.  I have never read an X-Men comic book, only rarely seen episodes of the animated series, and am for all intents and purposes an X-Men newbie.  A movie like this is almost sure to get the fanboys out to the theatres (though beware the backlash lest the movie fail to live up to impossible expectations!), but to please (appease?) them and also appeal to people like me is a tricky proposition.

The story wisely focuses largely on Wolverine, one of the more complex characters in the X-Men universe, and to a smaller degree Rogue, a young girl with the (often unfortunate) ability to take powers from other people or mutants simply through physical contact.  Wolverine’s mutant ability to heal himself, combined with his ability to extend metal claws from his knuckles, is a far cry from Storm’s ability to alter the weather, Mystique’s talent for shape-shifting, or Cyclops’ powerful laser eyesight, and it is this ability that allows casual viewers like myself to connect with the main character on a personal level.  The same goes for Rogue:  we see her accidentally send a young man into a coma when the two of them share their first kiss, and this helps us not only understand the depth of her character but connect with her on an emotional level as well.  She runs away to Canada after this incident, meets up with Wolverine in a seedy bar, and begins to form a friendship that serves to define their characters throughout the rest of the movie.

X-Men Xavier Magneto

The relationship between Xavier and Magneto is wonderfully deep and complex--a far cry from Good Guy vs. Bad Guy.

Ultimately this is why Bryan Singer’s X-Men succeeds where it could have just as easily failed:  Singer focuses first and foremost on the characters, using special effects and big-budget action setpieces when necessary to the story as opposed to the other way around.  And perhaps the most interesting of all is the relationship between bad guy Magneto (Ian McKellan) and good guy and X-Men savior Professor Xavier (Patrick Steward, fantastic as usual).  Singer eschews the traditional insane-megalomaniac-bent-on-world-domination caricature in favor of a Magneto who, because of his childhood experiences in Nazi concentration camps, sees only the worst of what humans are capable of doing–especially to those who, like mutants, are different.  When Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson) introduces a bill effectively forcing all mutants to declare themselves, and their powers, to the authorities, Magneto puts in place his plan that will essentially turn all the world leaders into mutants.  Xavier, with his team of mutant good guys, must put a stop to this dastardly deed before it’s too late and the human/mutant conflict escalates into a war.

It’s a premise that can only exist in a comic book movie, to be sure, but in the capable hands of Singer the movie never devolves into comixploitation or cartooney violence just for the sake of it.  In fact, the story actually focuses too much on the characters–there are so many humans, good mutants, and bad (or just misguided) mutants to keep track of that the movie gets a little too convoluted for its own good.  Between love-triangle jealousy, character backstories, political wrangling, treachery and deceit, and Ray Park’s stuntman acrobatics, it’s a heck of a lot to process in just two hours.  And the climactic battle on the Statue of Liberty is actually a bit of a letdown–it would have been great to see an all-out brawl between Magneto and some of the X-Men, rather than having most of them sit around, helplessly locked up until Cyclops accidentally saves the day.  The script is also a bit too heavy for its own good, with some of the cheesiest dialog this side of Episode 2.  After all, this is a comic book movie, not Shawshank Redemption, so maybe Singer could have eased up on the seriousness level a few times.


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