Prequel problems X-emplified ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prequel problems X-emplified

X-Men: First Class
My rating:

A quick primer on the previous X-Men films: X-Men's (2000) primary achievement was taking the concept of superpowered mutants seriously, but offset by a goofy plot involving a magical device that turns people into mutants. X2: X-Men United (2003) was a rare sequel that was better than its predecessor, raising both the global and personal stakes and coupling it with some terrific superheroic action. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was a disappointment; the story was a natural follow-up to what came before, but told in an uninspiring manner that lacked the previous two's emotional weight. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) was just meh. I wanted to do Retro Reviews of them, but this'll have to do for a recap of the series so far, as we now examine this latest instalment - which happens to be a prequel.

Which suffers from the perennial problem that plagues all prequels: predictability.

It is 1962, the dawn of mutantkind. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting Nazi war criminals in a single-minded pursuit of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who killed his mother and awakened his powers of magnetism. Charles Xavier's (James Macavoy) theories of genetic mutation are gaining recognition, but he already has proof of them: his adopted sister, the blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), as well as his own telepathic powers. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) uncovers a plot masterminded by Shaw to escalate the nuclear tensions between Russia and the U.S., as well as the existence of mutants - specifically, Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González) - working for him. This leads her to seek out Charles' help, and when they cross paths with Erik, he too joins forces with them - for now. Together, Charles and Erik recruit more mutants - Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoë Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi) - in a bid to both combat Shaw and decide the fate of mutantkind.

This is gonna be another one of my seemingly-uncomplimentary 3-½ star reviews, and I'm really beginning to wonder why I write so many of 'em. Maybe it's because a 4-star movie earns raves all the way, and a 3-starrer is just about balanced in terms of what works and what doesn't. But a 3-½-star film is often just on the cusp of greatness, which just makes its flaws so much more frustrating. X-Men: First Class has been earning raves everywhere (with the notable exceptions of Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli), but I can't find it in me to fully agree with them. Yes, it's a solid entry in the X-Men franchise, and a necessary revitalization after the last two poorly-regarded movies. Yes, it's good summer blockbuster entertainment, delivering thrills and spectacle without demanding you leave your brain at the door. And I guess it's kinda fun spotting all the nods and references to both the previous films and the X-Men comics - but therein lies the problem.

Namely, that there's absolutely nothing in this movie that's going to surprise us. We already know Magneto is a holocaust survivor. We already know he and Charles Xavier will meet and become friends, only to break ranks over their philosophical differences and become enemies. We already know Mystique will join Erik and Beast will remain on Xavier's side. We already know Charles will become paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. And we already know that the Cuban Missile Crisis did not end with both the American and Soviet fleets destroyed by their own missiles. It would have been a gripping tale of betrayals and shifting alliances, if the outcome of it all wasn't a foregone conclusion. Even the superpowers just aren't as cool as they were before, simply because we've already seen magnetism, telepathy, shape-shifting, teleportation et al before.

And this extends to the central debate between Charles and Erik over the path mutants should take to survive. X-Men introduced the theme, X2 and The Last Stand escalated it - which leaves X-Men: First Class to just sort of spin its wheels in regards to the problem of how the world copes with mutants in their midst. If this is a true prequel to those previous films, this means Professor X, Magneto and the world has spent 40 years accomplishing nothing about the mutant problem. But if there's anything new this movie does with the theme, it's to turn our sympathies entirely towards Erik's ideology. When normal humans aren't trying to kill mutants, they're mocking them for being freaks, and the one CIA director (played by an underused Oliver Platt) who seems vaguely sympathetic wants to keep them in indentured servitude to the U.S. government. I don't remember the other three films being this blatantly anti-human; their bigotry really feels forced and contrived. We're given no reason to support, or even understand, Professor X's philosophy of peaceful co-existence.

It doesn't help either that Charles is a far less interesting character than Erik here. The former is a privileged rich kid barely aware - and dismissive - of his own sister's insecurities; the latter is a badass Nazi hunter out for revenge. I wonder if this was intentional, or if it's indicative of the storyline's weakness with characterization as a whole. None of the other mutants have any personality, with the exception of Mystique and Beast (and in Mystique's case, again, we already know how that's going to play out). One of Charles' recruits switches sides to Shaw for no apparent reason, then happily tries to kill the very people she earlier befriended. X-Men stories have always been ensemble pieces, and a good one knows how to give each minor character just enough characterization even as it necessarily focuses on one or two major protagonists. (Star Trek did this nicely.) This one culminates in a climax in which a bunch of them literally stand around doing nothing while the important characters duke it out.

Okay, okay, let me now talk about some of the movie's good parts. It's anchored by a pair of terrific performances, namely Michael Fassbender's and Kevin Bacon's. Erik's traumatic memories and volcanic rage - both at Shaw and at the mistreatment of mutantkind by humans - is forcefully portrayed by Fassbender, who is so confident in his screen presence that it's a wonder he's only now being recognised as a major star. And Bacon makes for a delicious villain, the kind so irredeemably evil and so smug and arrogant that his comeuppance is truly satisfying. There's a definite James Bondian vibe running through the movie, especially in the casual sexism (and sexiness) of the era and the Ken Adam-ish sets; I especially liked Shaw's submarine headquarters-cum-swinging bachelor pad. TMBF is an unabashed Bond fan, and I totally dug these; you can never have too many '60s-era Bond references, is what I say.

I don't know about Matthew Vaughn. I know everyone liked Kick-Ass, but I still haven't forgiven him for the hackjob he did on Neil Gaiman's Stardust. (Seriously, that movie botched the book soooo badly. Ask me about it sometime.) I may be biased against him, but I don't think he's that great a director, even though he keeps making big, ambitious comicbook adaptations and other geek-appeal movies. I don't think he's proven he has the intelligence to really deliver on the source materials he picks. So yeah, this is the second Vaughn film I'm giving 3-½ stars to, and this is my umpteenth 3-½ star review that sounds like I hated the movie. I didn't, really; I enjoyed it just fine. But the only way it's the best X-Men movie so far is if it's the first X-Men movie you've ever seen.

Expectations: man, that is one noisy trailer


k0k s3n w4i said...

I read Stardust before I saw the film - and I still think the film is superior to the book (my girlfriend concurs). I only like Neil Gaiman when his ideas are filtered through an interpreter; a comic book artist or a filmmaker (his best work, IMO, is still the Sandman comics). His stories in print seems to lack a certain liveliness about them. I've also read Neverwhere, American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and I consistently feel the same way about them. I could even tell which parts of Good Omens was written by Pterry and which parts are his (as do my other fantasy geek friends).

TMBF said...

@k0k s3n w4i: I agree that Gaiman's prose doesn't match up to his comics work, but Stardust the novel beats the movie six ways to Sunday. It was just so much more mature and nuanced, and the movie dumbs it all down shamelessly. Vaughn did the same thing on Kick-Ass, toning down the grimmer parts of the comic and making it more of a crowd-pleaser. That's why I don't think he's a particularly intelligent director.

the writer said...

"It doesn't help either that Charles is a far less interesting character than Erik here."

for me,what made him interesting is that his willingness of helping other people like him to try fit in the community.look at how he treat raven when he first saw her in the kitchen.he let raven eat anything she like and treat her as a family without asking any further information about her.

"The former is a privileged rich kid barely aware (and dismissive) of his own sister's insecurities; the latter is a badass Nazi hunter out for revenge."

correction.raven is not charles's sister.he just treat her like his own sister.

"One of Charles' recruits switches sides to Shaw for no apparent reason, then happily tries to kill the very people she earlier befriended"

she was sick of being treated as 'circus clown' and people looking at her as freak.charles didn't really help her in sweeping her feeling aside hence,when sebastian came and ask her to join his side,she didn't reluctant to join them.

i think you need some understanding about the characters further there anything bothers you before you watch the cinema?cuz it might be the reason you're not fully understand the characters in the movie.

just my 2 cents.

TMBF said...

@the writer: No, I understood them just fine. Charles is a good person, but that does not make him an interesting character; internal conflict does, the kind Erik had. And Charles' insensitivity towards Raven made him a lot less likable too. And there's no way you can explain Angel's face heel turn in a way that makes any sense.

k0k s3n w4i said...

There's a lot of story elements in Kick-Ass I wish Matthew Vaughn had stuck to, but I still ended up enjoying the film more than I did the comic.

Same with Stardust. Matthew Vaughn essentially took Gaiman's story and turned it into a Princess Bride-ish fantasy adventure film. I ended liking the film more too.

I wouldn't say that he Matthew Vaughn is unintelligent. He's not Zack Snyder who would stick religiously to the source material. He looks at the main storyline and asks how he could interpret it in a way that's fun and accessible, while still remaining true to the spirit of the works he's adapting. Like the fellas at the Slashfilmcast (including director Vincenzo Natali) said; Vaughn injects a lot of his own personality into his films.

Angel's heel face turn made perfect sense to me too. She doesn't want to work for the Muggles who think she's a freak. Shaw made a good case that if a war breaks out between mutants and humans, the mutants are going to win hands down (did you see how effortlessly 3 mutants absolutely destroy a small army of CIA agents to get to them?) - so you can factor in self-preservation into her motives. I was actually very surprised that only one of them crossed over.

I was more perplexed by Raven's face heel turn at the end, considering that her big brother figure just got shot in the spine - but by that point, the incentive for mutants to betray the human race had increased several thousand-fold.

the writer said...

charles' insensitivity you say.ironically his ability is reading people's mind.if you able to read people's mind,wouldn't you be more sensitive towards other people?

you see,when he already accept raven and treat her like his own sister,that already shown his sensitive trait.

TMBF said...

@k0k s3n w4i: It makes no sense for her as a character, because we've seen nothing bout her to motivate the turn. You said it, she's the only one who crossed over - why her? What is it about her that made her believe Shaw's argument over Xavier's, that made her the only one? There's nothing, because she's not a character; none of them are. She turned because the plot demands it, nothing more.

In fact, there may be a more disturbing reason why it's her, out of all of them, who turned evil.

@the writer: Dude, if you can't see Charles' insensitivity towards Raven, you're missing something that's right there.

k0k s3n w4i said...

"It makes no sense for her as a character, because we've seen nothing bout her to motivate the turn."

by that same argument, we can say that none of the side characters were fleshed out enough to for us to tell if they would stay instead of following shaw. cuts both ways.

but from whatever little characterisation angel got, i thought she was the likeliest to turn (as soon as shaw gave the offer, i knew she would be the one). she was clearly the one who was most bothered by the racism of the cia agents - this was shown in her exchange with raven. also, being a minority herself, she would have known first hand how terrible racism is; that is to say, she's probably has the same view magneto has.

i also read an argument elsewhere which said that matthew vaughn wanted a flyer versus flyer battle, so it was either angel or banshee.

as for darwin dying first; i thought it was just an illustration of how bad ass shaw was - he killed the unkillable mutant. it's only incidental that the two mutants in question happens to be from the minorities. no one seems to have a problem with the fact that the entire bad guy team was made up of white people in the beginning (azazel's actor is white too), but as soon as a coloured character turn bad, everyone's crying foul. the cry of racism that a lot of movie critics and bloggers rallied under is vastly over-exaggerated, in my opinion.

p.s. i did think it was too heavy-handed when the camera focuses on darwin when shaw mentioned slavery - but i don't think that's racist either. african americans were enslaved at one time.