Wednesday, June 8, 2011

X-men: First Class

Alternate Title:  Why I Love Comics

One sentence synopsis:  A group of mutants headed by Charles Xavier and Magneto must stop an evil mastermind from starting World War Three.

Things Havoc liked:  One thing I like about this new policy of a weekly movie is that I am forced to see films I would not otherwise have seen. Some movies are simply obscure or regarding a subject matter I have no interest in, but others are ones for which I have made a snap judgment based on the trailers. Trailers exist for such things after all, so I usually feel confident in pre-judging a film based upon it. This movie, like others I have reviewed here, had terrible trailers, and given that both X-men 3 and Wolverine were terrible, I had some confidence in predicting that this thing was going to blow. Hard. Yet in order to see a film a week, sometimes, I am forced to see movies I would otherwise skip. There are times when the movie turns out to be just as bad as I expected, or even worse, and I hate that I invented this policy. Once in a while though, a movie will surprise me, and on such days, I like this policy.

Today, I like this policy.

This movie was fantastic, from start to finish. It helps of course that the X-men were my childhood favorites growing up, but even independently of this, it tells a story that is compelling and rich and brilliantly well acted and faithful in the extreme to the comics and the (good) movies that came before it. It integrates the origins of the X-men into history superbly well, founds the characters in reality, and gives them weight and depth and likability. I love these characters, and I loved seeing them brought to life on the screen.

The story is, essentially, that of two people. Charles Xavier, and Erik Lenscher, known by the end of the film as Professor X and Magneto (the way they get their names is a hoot, by the way). Xavier, played by James McAvoy is spellbinding. He's arrogant, in his own weird way, a young man who thinks he knows what's best for everyone partly because he actually does. He's genteel and clever and wickedly insightful (as one might expect from a telepath), someone who knows exactly how to talk to someone else and get them to like him and trust him, yet also someone whose sense of morality is simultaneously unbending and flexible enough for compassion. A mentor and a friend to everyone, and yet human enough to drink and to hit on women by describing how their genetic code is beautiful (it's actually less pathetic than it sounds). A true, classical hero, and I'm astonished to say that McAvoy does a better job with the character than even Stewart did (partly because he's permitted to be much more active than Stewart).

And if McAvoy nails Xavier, then Michael Fassbender, who is always excellent even in bad movies, nails Magneto equally. Magneto is one of my favorite characters ever and this, THIS RIGHT HERE, this is why. Fassbender's Magneto is tormented, yes, but he's not an emotional wreck, and neither is he a stone, unfeeling killer. Magneto is a driven man who has suffered outrages and will not see them committed again against "his" people. He's one of those strange people who gets scarier the less angry he is, and yet the movie takes great pains to paint him, not as a villain, nor even really as a designated villain-in-training, but as a man, complicated and sometimes confused, who acts as he thinks is best, and has real compassion and capacity for greatness that he does not simply cast aside when it comes time to become the bad guy. Indeed, I wouldn't even call him "the bad guy". He's a character, whole and complete, and one may take him as one finds him.

Those two I expected, but what I did not expect, was a third character, scarcely any less important, specifically Mystique, played by Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence. Mystique is an important character in the comics, but I've never been a fan of hers. This movie changed my mind. In this, Mystique is Xavier's quasi-adopted sister, a homeless orphan taken in by Charles and his family when she was a child. As such, Mystique goes from being a devious villain (not interesting) to being Xavier's more grounded sibling (very interesting). Her nature as a visible, obvious mutant who must hide her identity is explored in depth, and she serves as an interesting vehicle to explore Xavier's and Magneto's contrasting philosophies concerning what Mutants' place in society ought to be, thus eliminating the need for the characters to actually stand around and tiresomely scream at one another.

The characters are themselves very strongly portrayed, written, and acted, but the brilliant part is not the characters themselves but how they interact. This movie gets it right. We see and believe Xavier and Magneto becoming friends, real friends, not because the plot requires pathos but because they simply are. Mystique's interactions with Xavier are so right I can't even do them justice. They act like siblings, argue like siblings, know one another the way siblings do, and care obviously for one another deeply Her connection with Magneto is equally interesting. We see why she is attracted to what he represents (and perhaps to him himself, though the movie doesn't force a "relationship" on us in any way). We see why he takes interest in her, what he sees in her both in terms of potential and in terms of a fellow member of his oppressed group. NONE of these relationships seem forced, NONE of them seem one-sided or even particularly unhealthy. These people genuinely love each another. That their characters force them to act differently to one another is simply the way of things. At the end of the film, I would not say they part as friends, but neither do they part as enemies. It is this intriguing element that made these characters my favorites as a child, and it made them so here again.

I've spoken endlessly, and not even gotten to other amazing things, from Kevin Bacon's turn as Sebastian Shaw, to Nicholas Hoult as Beast, to January Jones as Emma Frost, to Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart. All four do justice to their characters, particularly Hoult. I've not talked about the great character actors like Oliver Platt, Rade Šerbedžija, Michael Ironside, or Matt Craven, who all bring great fun to their relatively small roles. I've not talked about the wickedly fun cameos (which I shall not spoil here), nor the superb writing, nor the effects, nor anything else. Suffice to say that the movie as a whole is acted, directed, scored, and written tremendously well across the board, and you will get the picture.

Things Havoc disliked:   Some of the minor X-men, particularly Havok and Angel, were not up to par with the rest of the cast. Not that they were terrible, but the caliber of acting is simply not there to compete with the main characters in the story. A few lines, particularly a couple given to Beast, ring false, which shows up more prominently because of the overall high quality of the writing. The subtitles on the exterior establishing shots are often laughable ("Secret CIA training facility!"). Finally, the movie (vaguely) implies that the Americans provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis deliberately, which is, needless to say, a view of history I find laughable.

Final thoughts:  This movie was just great, from start to finish. So much so that I doubt my own opinion on it and wonder if it might just be rampant fanboyishness talking. It gave me characters I cared about and had them interact with one another in interesting ways, and that, honestly, is all I can ask any movie to do. Comic book films have had such successes in the last decade or so that the bar is set ridiculously high for them, yet this movie vaulted over it effortlessly. It was faithful in detail and extreme to the comic, it was interesting and varied, it took its time when necessary and most of all it gave me the Xavier and the Magneto (and the Mystique!) I wanted to see.

Not long ago, I saw Thor in West Virginia. I thought it was the best movie I had seen all year. And here, for the second time in as many weeks, I have a new champion for that title, from another comic book film. I cannot guarantee that everyone will see it the same way as I did, but I loved this movie, and everything it stood for. Once again, the trailers lied to me.

But this time, I don't mind so much.

Final Score:  9/10

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