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Raggedy Adams is an alien dwelling in Birmingham, living vicariously through the flickering of a projector on a white screen. He's drank the Kool-Aid of modern cinema. Will you?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

7. X-Men: First Class

Alternate Title: "Austin Powers Meets the Superfriends".

Nicotine intake since viewing: Two pieces of nicotine gum.

Currently listening to: "Summertime Blues" by Guitar Wolf/”Psyche Rock” by Pierre Henry.

The Gist: Mutants get a prequel with some ‘60s kitsch and retcons for all. Fifth time lucky?

The Experience: Since my glowing review of Scott Pilgrim pretty much sucked all the critical juice out of me last year and my return to college last September, many of the movies worth reviewing ended up in my ponderously huge To Do pile. However, unable to put it off further, I've deigned to return to the world of movie blogging on the proviso that I get all the really positive things about X-Men: First Class out of the way first. It's well cast, beautifully shot and features stand-out performances from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto respectively. The visuals and effects are pretty and involving if a little bit familiar to long-term fans of the series and there are cameos and references to the comics and other films for those that care about that sort of thing, and in spite of all the mean things I'm about to say, it's at the very least the best Marvel movie to come out of Fox since the first installment. Right, that's the good news. Let's talk shitiness.

As anyone (and especially my therapists) will probably be able to tell you, my relationship with the X-Men films is at best complicated and at worst totally fucking mental. At the core is an interesting if well-worn concept and the seemingly endless permutations of the core line-up is a license to print money as far as comics go, and whilst some people trumpet on about the Spider-Man movies being better, (in spite of them actually being rather formulaic in comparison,) X-Men was the one that proved that people would pay to see a bunch of weirdos in leather slicing, blasting and hitting each other for 2 hours without feeling slightly dirty afterwards. So here we are, after two good entries, one iffy but not without merit third and then the abortive shit sandwich that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (this series’ obsession with pretentious subtitles has no end in sight), staring down the barrel of the latest offering, X-Men: First Class, a prequel/reboot/origin story to the only Marvel property Fox seems to have any clue how to keep going.

The plot starts as it means to go on, by shamelessly mining footage from the first film's opening, wherein we get a nice neat little reminder that the boy who would be Magneto started off as a concentration camp inmate, and showing how his powers are tortured into maturation by arch-dickspurt Nazi doctor Kevin Bacon shooting his mother in the head. Fast-forward to 1962 where we meet a young Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy and characterised here as a young Oxford professor who just happens to be able to read minds, which he demonstrates by (wait for it) drinking people under the table and hitting on girls despite the disapproving looks of Mystique, here taking the form of Jennifer “Winter’s Bone” Lawrence, and weirdly retconned as his sort-of adopted sister whom he looks after in a totally platonic way, if you can believe that for two seconds. McAvoy’s Xavier distinguishes himself right off the bat by being what the filmmakers clearly thought would be a hip, laddish, fun-loving version of the character to contrast with the serenity of Patrick Stewart’s performance but mostly just comes off as a bit of a twat, a David Cameron-esque toff trying to fit in with the proles; it's only McAvoy's own charm and wit that keeps this element of the character from defining him and despite a rocky start, he actually manages to imbue Xavier with depth, if a little at the expense of being able to relate to him in any realistic way.

Meanwhile, a now adult Magneto is travelling from one exotic locale to the next looking for Kevin Bacon (now going by the name Sebastian Shaw and kitted out like a homicidal Frank Sinatra) for revenge Mossad-style, little knowing that CIA agent Rose Byrne is also investigating his links to the hip and groovy Hellfire Club, a Las Vegas front for a secret society of mutants that seem to be in cahoots with top ranking officials in both America and Soviet Russia, and seeks out Xavier’s aid as he did his doctoral thesis on genetic mutation (and won’t shut up about how positively groovy it is; come on, James, you can do better than this!) in order to better deal with the threat of Shaw’s plans to blow up the world and rule whatever crawls out of the radioactive rubble.

Yes, this movie wears its inspirations very clearly on its sleeve and the main one at work here from a story and visual perspective seems to be “James Bond with superpowers”. You're probably thinking at this point "Adam, you Callipygian superman, what kind of talk is that? The sixties Bond was arguably the best era of the series and anything like it should be equally good." But that's the point: it isn't just like a Bond film, it IS a Bond film. True, the movie does keep a lot of the vestigial structure of the other X-Men films to aid fill in the various back-stories and introduce familiar elements such as Cerebro, whilst very clearly co-opting the plot progression (if not the tone or taut storytelling) of Batman Begins, but there is no denying the potent miasma of Connery-era Bond inflicting its influence over the proceedings for better or worse. Indeed, for most of the first act, Michael Fassbender’s accent when speaking English was almost indistinguable from the man himself, and I consider it no coincidence that he gets numerous opportunities to sneak around harbours, threaten henchmen eloquently and mack on Mystique despite clearly being a homosexual in later films.

This brings me neatly to what may or may not end up being the thing that decides the movie’s fate: continuity. Continuity is a tricky thing in comics; everyone - writers, artists, editors, readers have their own completely different relationship with continuity. For decades comics have been writing and rewriting the histories of its characters, to the point where it's often difficult to say what the definitive version of events is when any story can be instantly unravelled by a single retroactive erasure or alteration. And when it comes to films it’s even worse; very few comic book film franchises last longer than two films with the same director, let alone writing staff, and the X-Men series is no exception. Whilst X-Men 3 fumbled elements, leaving the possible continuation of the story on shaky ground, at least it didn’t take massive liberties with the principle character’s backst-oh wait, yeah, sorry, it did a bit. But still, it was nothing next to Wolverine’s brobdignagian level of idiocy. Not only did it completely skim over anything remotely like the “origin” element of the story, it was a film completely devoid of any kind of logical context for any of the action, taking place in a sort of weird uncanny valley version of the ‘70s that in its nondescript trappings looks too bland to belong to any particular era. For all its kitschy period fixtures and blatantly telegraphed influences, First Class at least knows when and where it’s meant to be set; what it seems to struggle with is why it’s there and not in the ‘70s (arguably much more suited to the character’s ridiculous outfits) or underwater or in space. Because the movie never quite makes the bold step of establishing itself as its own film in its own right with its own rules, cut off from previous attachments, it makes the whole “fresh start” aspect of the film seem a bit hollow.

Thing is, good continuity can only help a story, not make it. The inherent problem with any kind of television or film adaptation of a team-based intellectual property is that it's going to suffer from a potential lack of proper character development, and even the better X-Men films feel positively stuffed to the gills with cute little cameos and references that make the universe feel bigger and more inclusive but fails to deliver anything close to a long term character arc. For this reason in particular, X-Men: First Class was always going to a quintessential “popcorn” summer movie. The true measure of it, however, was whether it was going to stand on its own merits or sink slowly and painfully into the ocean of shittiness. And in spite of my complaints, it does. Mostly.

Okay, I admit I am being overly mean, but that's only because I know the series can do better. The movie itself isn’t bad; how could it be? Its best stuff is bloodily ripped off from the better parts of the series, none of the secondary characters apart from Nicholas Hoult’s young version of Beast are more than one-note, and the end is a foregone conclusion. But, it does still hold the distinction of being the first X-Men film I’ve seen since the original that was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it eleven years ago and hasn't made me want to gouge out the eyes of everyone involved. What I’m straining towards is a recommendation: it's not perfect, but what is? At its core, First Class is a giddy trip down memory lane, kept above water by a strong central pairing in McAvoy and Fassbender, and if you can get over the fact that it was never going to fit neatly into the pre-established film series it’s a fun little jaunt with plenty of chuckles, set pieces and mutant goings on to keep most people involved. If you’re expecting anything deeper than that, you’ve clearly not seen any of the X-Men movies due to being in some sort of cryogenic chamber for the past eleven years. In which case, welcome to the 21st century, puny homo sapien, we've been expecting you.
I drank the Kool-Aid. Maybe you should too. Or not.

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