Thursday, June 2, 2011
“Best. Comic book movie. Evah!” So my inner fangirl is screaming as she does a little happy Snoopy dance. “X-Men: First Class is awesome!” The cooler, more rational part of my brain is looking upon that inner fangirl with indulgent, affectionate pity: “Silly girl, it’s not the best anything ever. It’s just a very well done example of a genre that often gets by on the generosity of its audience. You’re just glad this movie doesn’t require excuse-making.”
My inner fangirl is going: “Pfffttt! Best. Comic book movie. Evah!”
“Is it better than Spider-Man? Is it better than Iron Man? Well, is it?”
Those movies aren’t perfect. But they’re great movies anyway. I love those movies. I love how they embrace their inherent cheesiness and goofiness as a complement to their proud profundity.
I love First Class for the same reason (among others): It is so gloriously itself, and it treats its characters with such wonderful admiration that you utterly sympathize with them. Who wouldn’t want to be a mutant, despite the abuse they suffer from “normal” society?
Has it really been nine years since the bitingly trenchant X2: X-Men United smacked us with its metaphors for a terrorized, terrified nation facing a seemingly unknowable enemy? First Class feels like the other bookend on the post-9/11 decade, for even though it rewinds the X-Men franchise to the 1960s, it couldn’t be more pertinent to today. A mutant baddie, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, never more villainous, or having so much fun with it), is attempting to manufacture a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to wipe out the “normal” humans and accelerate the mutagenic process and create more posthumans like him and his friends. The year? 1962. Yup: this is the “real” story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that alone makes this a deliciously odd tale tinged with satire, placing First Class somewhere at the intersection between Dr. Strangelove and an Oliver Stone conspiracy fantasy.
And boy, is it swank! Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, the elegant crime drama Layer Cake ) has given us an X-Men movie set in a groovy, cinematical iconic 1960s, stylish and snazzy to look at but effortlessly cool in attitude. This could almost be a rediscovered early James Bond flick: Shaw is a Bond-like villain, with his destroy-the-world ambitions and his bevy of beautiful lady sidekicks – January Jones as Emma Frost looks gorgeous in her white bikini and diamond-hard mutant body shield.
The heart of the movie is the push and pull between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, excellent as always), who can read minds and control the thoughts of others, and Erik Lehnsherr (the riveting Michael Fassbender, who will be a huge star after this), who can make metal do his bidding. We saw, in the first X-Men movie, the endpoint of their relationship, at which they are bitter enemies, divided over how best to interact with unmutated humans (Lehnsherr sees violent conflict as the only option; Xavier wants to work peacefully together). Here, we witness their meeting and the beginning of what is almost instantly a powerful friendship and complementary working partnership, though they are in contention instantly as well.
Questions like “Does torture work, and should we be above it even if it does?” are explored with comic-book-scaled subtlety: One scene in which the two men need to get information about Shaw out of Frost is shocking from a number of angles, with Xavier and Lehnsherr at least partly correct in their perspectives. And although we know where they will end up, the film avoids the feeling of inevitability that comes with prequels and preordained endings.
It’s not all serious. For all its heaviness, First Class is sweet, funny and pleasingly fast-paced. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, Charles’ adopted sister and a shape-shifting mutant, is delightful when she begins to enjoy a “normal” teen crush on another mutant, Hank (played by the adorable Nicholas Hoult). There are some hilarious and just-right cameos that make you laugh and sigh at the same time with how perfect they are and how naturally they are worked into the story. It’s not Shakespeare… but, as breezy, thoughtful summer comic-book movies go, almost. Al-damn-most.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (4) Directed by Matthew Vaughn • Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence •Rated PG-13 • 132 min • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas.