Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I guess X-Men: First Class was set in the ‘60s to better reflect Matthew Vaughn’s thoughtless patriarchal identification, because it damn sure wasn’t about civil rights, the Cold War, liberation, or the Holocaust, weighty abstracts whittled into icons, the better for Vaughn to pretend his film has some deep, world-historical meaning instead of actually doing the work of investing his social commentary, or his doomsday scenario, or his gay allegory, or his coming of age with genuine depth. The story thrills—Magneto hunting Nazis, Xavier assembling a team, our heroes saving the world—but the screenplay is a bag of bones, going from civilian to superhero with the whoosh of a montage, racing from scene to scene so we don't think about it too hard, and pivoting on several sudden betrayals by those sneaky racial minorities, a black wasp hooker and a blue-skinned, naked chameleon (which I think is taking pride a little too far). What’s more, the reversals are prompted by dialogue that couldn’t convince you January Jones has boobs, not that you could possibly miss the twin subjects of this adolescent fantasy, protesting its feminism while objectifying every curve in sight.
Professor X himself could not determine why Matthew Vaughn made a film about the X-Men set in the ‘60s, outside of the all-too-rare bits of reimagining, like casting the Hellfire Club as a Sinatra-style Vegas powerhouse and dropping Moira MacTaggert into the CIA. Sure we get Charles’ groovy come-ons, such frenetic globe-trotting that even Olivier Assayas was like, “Wait, where are we?” and enough cleavage to keep the world from nuclear war for a little while longer, but otherwise, like with everything else, there is no motivation. January Jones is famous for playing dress-up in the ‘60s, but her Emma Frost looks like she’s about to present an MTV Movie Award; how did that bare rack get through the ‘50s without some serious HUAC investigation? The kids are left auditioning for The Secret Life of the American Teenager, especially our hopelessly modern rebel without a cause Lucas Till, who has the shoulders of a life-sentence and the macho posturing of a gay bar. Since you brought it up, the gay allegory is everywhere—young Beast wants a cure, don’t ask don’t tell, gay people should out themselves, they fight for a country that hates them, mutants can't resist a good techno beat—but only because it’s inescapable, X-Men and the 1960s overlapping at this lovely B&B called Civil Rights. Too bad it’s just referenced over and over rather than explicated, because this is the whitest, straightest, malest cast of superheroes since the last Congressional Halloween party. Instead of exploring the allegory, we get a whole lot of well-meaning reminders that we should all be ourselves, which is pretty good for a last-minute cake made with moldy ingredients the film forgot to use. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis is just an excuse for our characters to collide, the backdrop to the real drama, which has nothing to do with faceless hegemons fighting for global domination. The period is more than just pointless. It’s the biggest waste of potential since Havok put on a shirt.
Instead, Vaughn creatively develops this fantastical comicky universe, a brave embrace of the ridiculous that yields deep-roster mutants, colorful costumes, cartoonish photographs, goofy superpower-speak (“I’ll use my sonic scream as SONAR!”), a propulsive score, Harry Potter-style effects, Buffy/Teen Wolf character designs, a Scott Pilgrim villain reject, Kevin Bacon as the world’s foremost expert in mustache-twirling, and a Raimi-by-way-of-Leone shot from the inside of someone’s mouth. You’d think the setting would have demanded some comic-inflected, early Godard color-blocking, but there’s usually enough splashy pulpitude to keep from gagging on the angsty Dawson's Creek interludes. But the airy fantasy only goes so far, and the cheese turns to camp when Vaughn’s going for goosebumps, as in the final shot with a midsentence pause so long I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trailer on my iPhone and still had some time left. Meanwhile the pseudoscience grounding stumbles into questions it can’t answer, like why the Mohs hardness scale fails Emma Frost, how mutants can defy the laws of physics above and beyond their superpowers, and why Mystique is almost 30 and dating a teenager. Worst of all, the cheapo effects distract the one time they really need to resonate, a surprise, wannabe heart-rending death sequence that’s just too hokey to land. Like so many grasps at gravitas—mercifully outnumbered by all the whiz-bang fun—Vaughn falls short; even the effects are undeveloped.
The kids are perfunctory, the gay allegory directionless, the danger neutered by history, but X-Men: First Class isn’t about the first class, though I admire how believably scared and useless they are in their first fight scene, and it’s not about all the topical red herrings trotted out by a script that’s at once on the nose and empty (“Darwin’s dead, Charles!”). Brimming with winky continuity references that would be fun—the first 5,000, anyway—if they didn’t condemn this reboot to the dead-end of “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch,” X-Men: First Class is about being a prequel. If I were turned into a blue, furry beast, I would unleash some unprintables on the woman who tells me that’s who I am inside, but because he was destined for that anyway, Nicholas Hoult’s Beast doesn’t need much convincing. Betrayals are inevitable in this film because certain villains have to end up on the other side in order to show up on cue for Bryan Singer’s films.
For all the film’s jiggling parts, the crux lies in the struggle between Charles’ good, MLK Samaritanism and Erik’s Malcolm X mutant supremacy, which for all the actors’ charisma—and I’m speaking as much of the perennially overshadowed James McAvoy as I am of everyone’s favorite actor Michael Fassbender—is just slightly more developed than the rest. The give-and-take consists of the heroes repeating their philosophies, not arguing for them, so we nonviolent resistance types see nothing more than a stacked deck in Magneto’s favor: first he gets this extended mercenary plot that for all the bloodshed treats him like he’s just some charming bad boy, then the film goes out of its way to validate Magneto by entering conspiracyland and altering history, and when we finally get an action beat that tests the Charles/Erik dynamic, the best my hero can do is put up the loaded Good German defense. This is what the fifty-year franchise is all about, being the better man at the end of all things, forgiving your oppressors, compassion proving your worth, and Professor X can but shrug? Of course. Because one way or another, Magneto has to end up on the other side. X-Men: First Class is not an Ultimate-style reboot with the freedom to discover the characters for themselves. It’s an origin story nobody asked for, Rube Goldberg fatalism delivering each of its pieces into place as they yammer on about how liberated they are.