Wednesday, 1 June 2011
'X-Men: First Class' review:
It's barely been a year since the release of Matthew Vaughn's last film, the ultra-violent indie superhero movie 'Kick-Ass', yet his new movie - Marvel comic book prequel 'X-Men: First Class' - is already upon us. As that rapid production time might suggest, 'First Class' feels rushed: poorly scripted, with ropey back projection, lots of intangible CGI and a forgettable score. Problems which are only slightly alleviated by an interesting and talented cast, which includes James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult and Oliver Platt.
As the name implies, 'First Class' is an origin story about the founding of superhero team The X-Men, which centres on the relationship between future enemies Professor X and Magneto - Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender). It starts by contrasting the lives of the two characters as children in 1944, showing how the metal manipulating Erik spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, where his parents were murdered and he was victim of experimentation, whilst the telepathic Xavier spent his formative years living in a mansion, dedicating himself to the pursuit of knowledge in order to better understand the mutant phenomenon.
The film then moves forward to 1962 where Xavier is graduating from Oxford as an expert on gene mutation, spending his free time downing yards of ale and charming sexy students with his well-rehearsed chat up lines. Meanwhile, Erik has become a Nazi hunter, scouring the globe in search of the man who shot his mother and experimented with his abilities, an energy adsorbing mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Bacon). With Cold War at its height, Shaw sets about provoking nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the hope of destroying non-mutant kind forever. It is he who is behind the Cuban Missile Crisis, playing both sides against each other. Xavier and Erik meet whilst in pursuit of Shaw (Xavier in the service of the CIA), leading the pair unite and set about recruiting other mutants in the name of preventing his evil plan.
This convoluted, time-traversing structure means that the first half of the film consists almost entirely of insubstantial moments, as Vaughn cross-cuts between exotic locations and introduces us to a multitude of obscure Marvel characters. It takes an age to get moving and in this time none of the perfunctory sub-plots are developed beyond the superficial minimum, with the movie feeling like a simple box-ticking exercise. Many of the mutants - including Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havoc (Lucas Till) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi) - are not fleshed out at all beyond the level of simple archetypes and are only really present to make up the numbers, in a film which might have done better to restrict the comic book heroes on screen in the name of greater depth. Certainly the best scenes are those which rest on McAvoy and Fassbender, who make for an appealing pair of opposites.
With four credited screenwriters, including Vaughn and Jane Goldman (with whom he scripted 'Kick-Ass'), it is perhaps no surprise that 'First Class' isn't the model of structural coherence or thematic restraint. The dialogue rarely rises above in-jokes about Xavier's future baldness or trite, over-explained literary references, to Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, though a few of the actors are able to rise above the material with their credibility intact. The whole thing also reeks of compromise as the director sets up some quite sadistic and threatening scenes of violence before presumably remembering the film's prospective family audience. The brutal final kill shot is one such example, as Vaughn's camera maliciously, even pornographically, tracks the action. Only, without the blood and energy that would have underscored such a scene in 'Kick-Ass', this self-conscious moment feels muted and misplaced.
Worse still, Vaughn's treatment of female characters is the stuff of mild teenage fantasy. We are introduced to Rose Byrne's Moira MacTaggert as she strips into her lingerie to gain entry to a club filled with scantily-clad women. Similarly, minor antagonist Emma Frost (played by January Jones) is given little to do but look pretty, whilst Kravitz's Angel is first shown as a stripper, dancing for Charles and Erik as they sip champagne. She demonstrates her mutation - her insectoid wings - in a hopefully "sexy" way as they watch her from a red velvet bed. "How would you like a job where you get to keep your clothes on?" asks Charles on his recruitment drive, in the most chauvinist, patronising tone possible. Jennifer Lawrence too is subject to the film's leering male gaze, with her sub-plot being that her often-naked blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique just wants to have body confidence. Like Byrne and Jones, Lawrence is all but written out of the film's biggest action sequence and instead is reduced to a kind of romantic hot potato, thrown between three of the male leads in the course of the film's two-hours.
For me though, the most troubling aspect of 'X-men: First Class' is that Vaughn's sympathies lie with the forces of revenge, intolerance and indiscriminate violence - and as such he is at fundamental odds with the source material. Fassbender's enigmatic future-Magneto is cast as an effortlessly cool anti-hero and it's with sickening relish that Vaughn stages the character's violent revenge killings near the start of the film. His emphasis on Erik's concentration camp struggles make it clear where our most reactionary sympathies are supposed to lie. As with 'Kick-Ass' before it, the film runs on thinly concealed right-wing politics: this time promoting the idea that "victim's justice" is a form of common sense.
By contrast, it's the sheltered and wishy-washy Xavier, the college kid, who wants to get along with the non-mutant humans and "fit in" (tellingly, he is even shown to be disparaging of Mystique's natural blue form and wants her to undergo treatment to become "normal"). He hasn't lived life and felt hatred like Erik has and, naturally, harbours none of the resentment. Here the "good" concepts, of self-confidence and rugged individualism, are wedded to Erik and a militant ideal. Certainly, the film wants us to love McAvoy too, but Vaughn's heart really isn't in it. Vaughn celebrates Xavier most as a loutish drinker and sleazy womaniser, rather than as the genius future leader of the X-Men, and by the final shots it is clear who we are really rooting for under the stewardship of this cynical budget-Tarantino.
'Kick-Ass' had an infectious energy, matched by a humorous style and editing so slick that I was forced to turn a blind eye to its dark-hearted contempt for human life. Sadly, 'X-Men: First Class' didn't provide me with that same excuse and, consequently, I was never given permission to shake off my sense of disbelief and partake in the unalloyed joys offered by the best superhero movies, let alone Vaughn's love of mindless, anti-social violence. By commercial necessity, it's a weak, flavourless blend of 'Kick-Ass' and Bryan Singer's earlier films, which doesn't tread anywhere with much freedom or confidence.
'X-Men: First Class' is mean-spirited, but isn't mean enough. It isn't allowed to get as bloody as it would like to. It isn't as stylish as it thinks it is. It isn't camp enough to be fun in spite of these failings and it isn't knowing enough to be considered ironic. Conscious of its brief to please a wide audience, the movie limply rests somewhere between those positions, unsure of what direction to take and which movie it wants to be - hoping you don't notice amidst all the explosions and the boobs.
'X-Men: First Class' has been rated '12A' by the BBFC and is on general release from today in the UK.