Tuesday, April 17, 2012

91. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)

Taking a novel approach to Marvel's X-Men franchise, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS takes us back to 1962, slightly before the comic book itself first appeared, to show how Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) formed his initial group of mutants, founded a school to help them hone their natural talents into skills, and became idealistically opposed to best friend Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who prefers that mutants dominate the rest of mankind rather than assist them.

Under the direction of KICK ASS' Matthew Vaughn, working from a script signed by a half-dozen people, it's a cohesive action picture but the subtextual elements that allied the X-Men to gays and other outsiderly factions in Bryan Singer's X-MEN (2000 - was it really 12 years ago?) are now much more foregrounded, to the point where it's harder to accept these heroes as avatars for any cause larger than themselves. Unlike Spider-Man, who's guilt-ridden; unlike Daredevil, who's love-ridden; unlike the Hulk, who's schizophrenic; unlike the Fantastic Four, who are an eight-fisted domestic squabble, the X-Men seem deeply bruised and compromised by different levels of self-loathing before their first punch is thrown, or whatever they throw instead of punches. (And the black one is the first to die -- his being a level of angst this metaphor simply cannot support.) They can't walk away from any victory undejected. Collectively they seem a zillion miles away from the preening self-confidence of their creator, Stan Lee (who unusually does not appear in one of his trademark cameos, though Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman does).

In this story (which restages Magneto's childhood discovery of his powers in a concentration camp), the X-Men band together to call an unofficial halt to what history remembers as the Cuban Missile Crisis, making this kind of an interesting double-bill item with Joe Dante's MATINEE (1993). The end product is somehow more enjoyable than the previous two sequels, though untrue to its chosen time period (miniskirts and sideburns abound) and the original comic (only the Beast is included from Jack Kirby's initial lineup, though Professor X was already bald and wheelchair-bound) and despite the unconvincing, snarky malefics of lead baddie Kevin Bacon, who seems a lightweight choice for Sebastian Shaw, the template for Magneto's misguided miscreance. Likewise, January Jones as Emma Frost, Shaw's Girl Friday (who has the power to turn her epidermis into a girl's best friend), is never convincingly evil; worse still, she's never conspicuously other than MAD MEN's Betty Draper with some cleavage showing. On the plus side, the origin story of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is quite satisfying, as are her semi-sexual, semi-sponsorly tensions with Hank "The Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and there is something primally fulfilling about the spectacle of a futuristic, streamlined aircraft with a roaring, blue-furred animal manning its controls.

Viewed on Cinemax On Demand.

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