Sunday, November 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class, or "The Story of how Magneto got his Helmet," which was recently released on DVD, is one of the latest in Marvel's ongoing trend of producing a consistent output of superhero adaptations which, though rarely anything mind-blowing, generally leave you thinking "That was indeed an enjoyable superhero film." It's sort of the opposite of DC's current policy of mediating Christopher Nolan directed Batman extravaganzas with intermittent and uninspiring adaptations of mostly stuff no one cares about. Seriously, if you want good DC films, watch the animated stuff. Anyway, I'm no X-pert but I'd say this is probably the best X-Men film. While the original trilogy has its moments, particularly in the first two films, they were often let down by somewhat unambitious or meandering scripts and an indecisiveness about how seriously they were taking themselves. First Class is a little more focused, dealing with the origins of the X-Men and an exploration of the different points of view set against the ever-permissive backdrop of the Cold War. This provides a clarity of purpose which is made more effective by paralleling the human/mutant divide with the USA/Soviet tensions of the early Sixties.
As the film begins we're presented very effectively with an essential comparison of Xavier and Magneto in their youths, and this has vital consequences for the setting overall. It is Xavier, who has grown up in ridiculous luxury but with a loveless family, who desires kinship with all peoples, happy when Mystique enters his life, whereas Magneto has the love of his mother snatched from him by Nazi brutality. It's a bit Freudian but it provides a good basis for their differences of opinion; Xavier has received love and companionship from outside. For Magneto, it was the outside world which stole that bond away. Psychologically speaking, it gives an excellent counterpart to their more obvious conflict of philosophies.
Of course, as is standard for X-Men, Xavier believes great things are to be achieved by mutants and humans working in harmony. Magneto, having experienced xenophobia first hand in its most violent form, sees mutants as a group who must strike pre-emptively to protect themselves from the fear of humanity. Yet this film's action focuses around them working together in friendship, compromising until the situation becomes so untenable that they ultimately fall apart. Most of the time the film succeeds in keeping the morality ambiguous; as long as Xavier and Magneto share a common goal in defeating a mutual enemy both perspectives are given their time. Xavier wants to save the world, while Magneto is out for a fairly justifiable revenge.
Mutual enemy du jour takes the shape of Sebastian Shaw, apparently a long-standing X-Men foe who coincidentally shares a name with that guy who plays Darth Vader for like a minute after Luke removes his helmet in Return of the Jedi. Shaw basically wants to start a nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union so that he can recolonise the Earth as a mutants-only club in the ensuing radioactive wasteland. He's got a few flaws in his plan. For a start, he says that radiation started mutant evolution and that nuclear war will only make mutants stronger. But I'm pretty sure most mutants still need to, y'know, eat and stuff, so good luck raising animals or growing plants even if you aren't horribly wrecked by radiation no matter how unusual your genes. He also wants to lead mutant civilisation but he never has more than three other mutants on his team and doesn't seem to have considered that even if they could survive the radiation most of the mutants out there would, for instance, get blown up by nuclear explosions along with everyone else even before radiation became a factor. He also sends Emma Frost, who is clearly the most useful mutant on his team, off on her own to Russia which inevitably leads to her capture. He's not the brightest spark.
It's never really explained how merely manipulating two generals, one Soviet and one American, leads to nuclear plans for Turkey and Cuba, and how this gets through the chain of command, but then again it's not explained how he has a yacht with a detachable submarine either. In a world where telepathy is still a secret but the Soviets nonetheless make a telepathically shielded helmet I suppose anything is possible. The authorities are naturally played as sceptical and stupid; the Soviets play easily into Shaw's hands and the Americans refuse to listen to Moira or take their own mutants seriously. They order a pre-emptive strike on all the mutants in Cuba even though they've seen the X-Men battling Shaw's cronies before their very eyes and you reach the point where it's kind of difficult not to sympathise with Magneto's rather dim opinion of the idea of human/mutant co-operation. Indeed Moira is one of the only sympathetic humans in the entire film. In their conversation before the finale Magneto accuses Xavier with the remark "You believe they're all like Moira," to which Xavier cuttingly retorts "You believe they're all like Shaw." But that's the thing; Magneto doesn't believe they're like Shaw. He has entirely different reasons for hating Shaw, the sociopath who killed his mother in cold blood for the sake of an experiment, to the humans whose violent fear of mutants he equates with the Nazis' attitude toward Jews.
In fact Xavier, for all his mentorship, spouts a lot of pop psychology and rather hollow aphorisms which seem to undermine his appearance of wisdom. I'd think it was an intentional part of showcasing these characters in their youth but it's presented as if it is replete with gravitas and profundity. For instance, he advises Magneto that true focus lies "somewhere between rage and serenity". So... normal temperament, then? He additionally tells Beast that "Robert Louis Stephenson would be proud," when he unleashes his mutant powers to run really fast but this seems like a strained effort to give Xavier and Hank some "fellow intellectual cameraderie" which is rather heartily undermined as Xavier stands there like a plum while Havok insults Beast. Beast of course gets his own dubious moment when, upon testing Banshee's flight suit, tells him that "the sounds waves have to be supersonic." Beast, scientist that he is, would hopefully know that supersonic means "faster than sound", which by definition excludes sound from being one of the things capable of being supersonic. Perhaps he meant ultrasonic, which is to say high frequency.
Beast of course gets his own sub plot with Mystique in a sort of half-arsed attempt to give the film a smidge of romance otherwise irrelevant with the flirty but ultimately ineffectual Xavier and the cold, snide Magneto as leads. He wants to share with her the ability to not look 'different', to make their powers 'invisible' like Xavier's. This does add an interesting layer of discussion regarding conformity versus independence, and contributes a nice extra helping of ambiguity when it is the insecure and wannabe-conformist Beast who sticks with Xavier while Mystique, who learns to accept and appreciate herself for who she is, joins Magneto. Unfortunately the characters themselves at times struggle to be engaging and despite being intellectually interesting their narrative can occasionally feel like a frustrating distraction from the exploits of the much more charismatic Xavier and Magneto, whose scenes do a much better job of being both entertaining and critically engaging.
Xavier of course isn't all just pith and optimism and his wisdom isn't as artificial as I may have implied. James McAvoy portrays the character with a great deal of dignity, sincerity and wit which makes him easy to appreciate even if sometimes he seems a little idealistic. His plea to Magneto that "we can be the better men," is a fair point, and one which stands more firmly against Magneto's otherwise fairly justifiable inimity towards humans. His reminder as well that revenge does not bring peace may seem a little trite but it reinforces the point. "With great power comes great responsibility," is of course a favourite Marvel message but it's obvious that Xavier sees its responsible use as an opportunity. With their power to defend themselves they can rise above pettiness and negativity. As unfair and cruel as the US/Soviet attack on the mutants is, Magneto could easily have stopped the missiles and destroyed them rather than turning them back on their dispatchers. Yet Xavier's ambition to have mutants seen as heroes fails without Magneto's wrath to blame. So we're left rather unsettlingly with two factions, one whose intentions seem more prudent but whose means are ruthless and violent, and one whose ethos is more forgiving but whose ambitions seem naïve.
All in all it's actually a rather ethically and philosophically complex film when observed from the right angle but beyond Xavier and Magneto its character development lets it down a bit. This seems to be a carry-over from the original trilogy of films which, in all truthfulness, with Patrick Stewart content to phone it in from a wheelchair, was almost entirely carried through script limitations by Ian McKellen's performance as Magneto. Much like those films, First Class has an irritating disparity in terms of characerisation, with a handful of characters lavished with incredible attention and the rest, despite their prominence, left as two-dimensional cyphers bereft of any depth at all. In the original trilogy there were awkward characters like Rogue and Iceman or the constantly recast other schoolchildren but the prime offender was obviously Storm who, despite appearing in increasingly large roles throughout the films, had absolutely no character and very little significant dialogue. The same is true in First Class of Banshee, Havok and Angel Salvadore. Darwin, already unmemorable and having done absolutely nothing, is the token sacrifice in an appallingly cliché case of "black dude dies first." Banshee, who shares an unfortunately strong resemblance to Ron Weasley, serves along with Havok no greater purpose than action set-pieces and occasionally bouts of fairly lame comic relief. Angel is more ambiguous, joining Sebastian Shaw after he massacres dozens of security agents for no apparently greater justification than that some of those selfsame security agents made not particularly harsh jibes against the mutants.
Shaw himself may be a deluded sociopath, but good villains often are, and it's easy to hate him for what he did to Magneto, and to provide more context for how Magneto's own opposition to humanity is more than just power-mongering. As for his crew, Azazel and Riptide fill the unfortunate role which was filled by Toad and Sabretooth in the original film, as unspeaking stooges who solely exist to provide narrative threat where necessary and to show off special effects. They're so totally flavourless and devoid of personality that their presence serves to spoil the ambiguity somewhat, although I suppose it suggests that mutants too can be men "just following orders" and either reprehensible or pitiable for the same reasons. But a shred more characterisation would have helped. Even a scene or two of just them talking to each other in the submarine could have done it. Emma Frost, whose performer appears to have been cast more for her looks than acting talent, is wooden and unengaging besides a moment when she seems frustrated at Shaw which is never elaborated upon.
This by and large is a problem with all the X-Men films and, to an extent, with the whole concept of X-Men as a whole. It seems that more often than not the creators are content to use kooky powers and bizarre appearances as a substitute for investing the characters with believable personalities or anything beyond contrived relevance to the plot. It's not helped by the film franchise's obsession with constantly injecting each film with a fresh batch of mutants with new powers cherry-picked at random from various comics and continuities with no explanation as to where the last lot disappeared to or, in the case of the prequels, why they never appeared since. This isn't helped by the fact that the film is uneasy about whether it's a prequel to the X-Men film trilogy or just to X-Men in general. For instance, Xavier is crippled in this film despite the fact that he was walking around as a bald middle-aged man in X-Men 3's opening flashback. Yet earlier he and Magneto come across Wolverine as played by Hugh Jackman in a confusing but nonetheless unexpected and very funny brief cameo. And of course Magneto and Xavier meet in Florida, not in Israel the way they do in the comics. So I'm not really clear on what continuity it's meant to be supporting. It's really half and half, maintaining references to the previous films without being constrained by them and choosing to go in its own direction, which isn't really a problem considering that those previous films weren't that good anyway.
It still maintains some of the unfortunate traditions though, like the scattergun introduction of new mutants. A lot of their powers just come across as inherently ridiculous or unimaginative, too. While Xavier's telepathy, Magneto's magnetokinesis or Mystique's shapeshifting are all reasonably plausible as a higher or more evolved form of life, having a girl with butterfly wings or a guy who shoots laser beams out of his chest or a dude who summons tornadoes just by wiggling his fingers a little bit seem arbitrary and just bizarre. How do such specific powers even come about? And how come everyone seems to have different powers? Emma Frost is a telepath like Xavier, but can also turn herself into diamonds. That one's just weird. It's not the fault of the filmmakers. It's more a fault of the entire concept. It's harder to argue for "mutant pride" or whatever when mutants seem less like a consistent species and more like jut an unusually high proliferation of genetic anomalies. If someone really wanted to do something totally effective with the concept of 'the next stage of evolution', as I'm sure they already have, it would have to be just that: a distinct species, not loads of people with all different abilities.
But all this is besides the point. First Class is, when you get down to brass tacks, fundamentally a good film. While a little corny at times with the stranger mutants and Shaw's yacht sub and captions for locations like 'Secret CIA Base' and stuff the Cold War backdrop is effective and the characterisation of Xavier and Magneto alone makes the viewing worthwhile. It just could have done with a more complex story and better developed supporting characters to complement its philosophical and intellectual aspirations. That being said it's still the best live action X-Men film so far and as for this year's Marvel offerings is more fulfilled than the close-but-not-quite Captain America. Of course it all ends with a big sequel hook, with Xavier setting up his school. Emma Frost's prison breaks open at the CIA and Magneto marches in looking like an unbelievable twat in a baggy jacket and cape in a failed effort to hybridise one of his more conservative comic costumes with reality but which is so ill-fitting and shapeless that it looks like he must have got someone else to buy it who didn't know his sizes. Speaking of which, why does Magneto have an Irish accent? It doesn't bother me and it probably sounded "generically foreign" to most American audiences but it seems a little bizarre that this multilingual German-Polish Jew living in America would have such a peculiar cadence. Anyway, X-Men: First Class proves reliably as ever that a line doesn't have to be drawn between our entertainment and our intellectual matter and its Cold War setting and exploration of themes surrounding difference and discrimination should give it an appeal beyond the superhero afficionado.