X-Men: First Class

Monday, April 09, 2012

I still have nightmarish flashbacks to my last X-Men experience. I was unemployed and I decided to run some errands. In my foolish enthusiasm to get out of the house, I slammed the door shut without checking to see if I had my keys. I didn’t.

In order to kill time before my wife came home, I decided to go and see X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fuck me, it was a horrible experience. It was like some deranged monkey had been put in charge of the production and had spent $150 million throwing fecal matter at the screen. I vowed never to watch another X-Men film.

Not that I thought another film would come any time soon. I thought that Wolverine hadn’t made any money and that X-Men would be left alone for a while. But apparently lots of sad, lonely husbands also got locked out of their apartments during that time and went to see that colossal skidmark.

X-Men: First Class didn’t really appear on my radar. When the film came out, I could only think of my cat dragging his dirty bum across the tile floor in the kitchen. The insolent look of disobedience; the furry backside dragging mournfully across the surface with the hind legs terrifyingly immobile; the horrible brown streak circling the dinner table - 20th Century Fox were going to push this on us no matter what; even if the poo on Hugh Jackman’s face hadn’t had time to dry yet.

One of my wife’s little quirks is that she wishes she could deport me and marry James McAvoy instead. With this in mind, there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to get away with not watching First Class.

The first thing that struck me when watching the film: it’s actually quite good. Sure it’s a little odd to hear Kevin Bacon speaking pretty good German, but it had a strong start.

The movie begins with a young Erik (who’ll later become Magneto) being separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp. Distraught, he manages to bend some metal gates with the power of his mind. Seizing on this, Dr Schmidt (Bacon), later to be called Sebastian Shaw, tries to get the kid to move a coin for him. The kid tries and tries, but he’s unable to move it - the coin stays stubbornly motionless. Feeling that the kid perhaps needs a little more motivation, he brings the child’s mother into the room. Schmidt says that the boy has until the count of three to move the coin or he’ll shoot the boy’s mother. Erik tries even harder but he still can’t do it. True to his word, upon the count of three, Schmidt shoots Erik’s mother dead. Finally the boy is able to move the coin - his powers are fuelled by his rage.

What surprised me about this scene is just how grim it is. There’s an incredible amount of tension and the violence is shockingly strong for a PG-13. It’s nice to see a comic book movie that doesn’t hold back.

Better is yet to come. Erik, now grown up and played by the omnipresent Michael Fassbender, decides to track down Dr Schmidt so that he can avenge the death of his mother. Here the film becomes something of a Bond movie. Erik slowly draws closer to Schmidt/Shaw and assassinates anyone who gets in the way. There’s a fabulous scene where Erik uses his powers to kill a couple of ex Nazis who are hiding in Argentina. At one point he uses his magnetic powers to pin a man’s hand to a table with a knife. He doesn’t even have to touch the blade.

What makes this even more enjoyable is the over-the-top music that plays. When Erik’s in 007 mode, he has this brilliant piece of theme music that accompanies him. It’s kind of like a mixture of the James Bond theme and the rattling guitar piece from Once Upon a Time in the West. It gives the character a level of cool that far exceeds anything in the previous X-Men movies.

Once Erik meets up with Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) the movie becomes a little less fun. It’s still leagues ahead of anything else in the X-Men franchise, but the movie can’t quite maintain the heights of the opening thirty minutes.

One of First Class’s major problems is that the supporting characters are universally dull. The mutant kids that Xavier tracks down are fairly appalling and every time they’re on the screen, the film drags. None of the kids have got any serious acting chops and all of their special skills are underwhelming. There’s a kid who can fire raw bolts of energy, another has wings like a fairy, another can scream at such a pitch that he can fly at supersonic speeds and there’s even a boffin with prehensile feet. There’s also a kid called Darwin, who can adapt to any situation - at one point he sticks his head in a tank of water and develops gills. But the character’s only purpose in the film is to die. He’s the sacrificial lamb to prove how ruthless Sebastian Shaw is - Shaw fires raw energy into the kid’s mouth and the kid croaks.

What makes this scene so risible, though, is that Darwin is one of the only black characters (the other is a stripper). At one point Shaw even makes a speech about slavery and the camera stops right on the black kid. Subtle, no? But of course, the kid is black and therefore he must die.

The most ridiculous part of the film occurs in the final battle between the X-Men and Sebastian Shaw’s Hellfire Club. A large portion of the battle is given to a fight between the evil fairy stripper and the kid who can go supersonic by screaming. The fairy can apparently shoot stuff out of her mouth, which frequently gives us the completely idiotic image of a stripper fairy shooting crap out of her mouth as a spotty kid with flying squirrel wings screams in order to reach supersonic speeds. It’s the worst action scene I’ve seen in years - it’s completely risible.

Thankfully, cut into this nonsense, is the final confrontation between Magneto and Sebastian Shaw. If the film had focused on this entirely, it would have had a much stronger final act. I particularly liked the cold, methodical way that Magneto kills Shaw - with Shaw paralysed by Professor X’s mind control, Magneto, using his powers, slowly moves a coin towards his head. It’s the same coin that Shaw tried to get a young Erik to move when he killed his mother. The coin slowly floats towards Shaw’s head and then enters it, eventually passing through the other side. The younger Erik would have had this coin go through Shaw like a bullet, but the older, wiser and more ruthless Erik takes his time so that he can enjoy Shaw’s death.

One strange thing about the ending of the film is that Michael Fassbender, having now become Magneto, starts talking in a thick Irish accent. Throughout the rest of the film his accent is fairly neutral. Was this the first day of shooting or is he unable to shout in anything but his native brogue?

And the final shot ensures that the film ends with a damp squib. We finally see Magneto in his full costume. Only the costume looks like he knocked it up at home and his helmet has silly little horns on it. After such a strong beginning and such a shaky final section, First Class was begging for a strong ending. Sadly it doesn’t get it. I couldn’t help but feel they dropped the ball with this one.

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  1. It seems to me Ricky that the studio wanted to make sure we understood the beginning was really a throw together idea from people that had no prior superhero experience in a world where no one else modeled how to do it right. I think this helps them have somewhere to go too, which isn’t bad. I am laughing at your comments though because although they are true, I liked the movie anyway, which is sort of what you said too it seems. I liked it better the second time when a DISH co-worker told me it was free on the dishonline website. Actually, there were a lot of free movies I wasn’t aware were there but are new. Well, I was disappointed to find out the second one is delayed, but I don’t think that would cause you to loose sleep though, right?