Bottom line with all of these Marvel flicks should be this: Entertain first, teach/enlighten second. Make that a distant second.
The film opens with the powerful, albeit familiar at this point, imagery of 1944 Poland and a group of Jewish prisoners being muscled through the rainy gates of a concentration camp. This opening came as a surprising shock to me while watching the original X-Men all the way back in 2000. What an effective set up! Memorable. Gut wrenching. Heartbreaking. Who among us is not affected by reminders of the Holocaust?
Again we see young ‘Erik Lehnsherr’ (aka ‘Magneto’ played by Bill Milner) being ripped from his family by the merciless Nazi guards, bringing about a rage that activates his mutant power of manipulating all things metal.
But this time around we see what happens next – a brutal test scene set in a Nazi scientist’s office -further setting up this Marvel villain’s motivation for world dominance over humanity.
Unfortunately, this time around is where the film also takes its first stumble.
Casting really is everything. The three X-Men films that preceded X-Men: First Class did an above average job of filling out their rosters with exciting, inspired choices. From Kelsey Grammer to Ben Foster to Ellen Page to Liev Schreiber, the faces that have popped up to work off of the excellent ensemble of mutant heroes have been consistently spot on.
Kevin Bacon as a sadistic Nazi scientist was a bad call – and the film not only pays for it but compounds the matter by saddling him with lifeless eye candy, January Jones, as a sidekick. Bacon is just too likeable. And Jones is just too…lifeless. Casting her as a telepathic mutant must have been a favor returned to an agent. Or a bet lost on a golf course. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Mad Men fan, and Jones’ icy catatonic quality has been the perfect contrast to ‘Don Draper.’ But a crafty telepathic mutant she is not.
Ok, so that’s the casting problem with X-Men: First Class. But, while I could also take aim at the cliché choices of Michael Ironside, Ray Wise, Glen Moshower, and James Remar selected to fill out the one-note industrial military complex drones, let’s move on to the real shortcoming of this picture.
The film is basically a two-hour back story of the two central X-Men mutants, ‘Professor X‘ and ‘Magneto.’ A bromance, if you will, offering insight and setting the table for both characters’ motivations and aspirations. James McAvoy plays ‘Charles Xavier’ and Michael Fassbender plays ‘Magneto.’ While both actors are excellent, the writing is redundant and the picture becomes a relentless reminder to we mortals that tolerance and acceptance of others, especially those who may be different from us (code, I’m sure, for any one of society’s minority groups), is essential. OR ELSE!
To further muddy matters, the narrative is set to the backdrop of Cold War politics and the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with John F. Kennedy’s nationally televised briefings providing the clash of humanity necessary to elevate our mutant heroes to prominence.
Once the obligatory mutant recruiting has taken place and the newbies are quarantined at a CIA camp to begin their training, the personal dynamics take center stage. The character of ‘Raven/Mystique,’ a blue-skinned shape shifter played by Rebecca Romijn in the first two films, we now learn was taken in by ‘Xavier’s’ family as a mutant urchin. And now that she is a confused, hormonal teen (played by Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence), struggling with her identity, she is a prime target to be seduced over to the “dark side.”
An interesting enough plot twist on a character we had grown to accept was on the wrong side. But X-Men: First Class isn’t satisfied with mere twists, everything must be wrapped in social commentary. When ‘Magneto’ catches her in a vulnerable moment of self-doubt, he hits her with “You want society to accept you, but you can’t even accept yourself.” Inspiring her to take on the mantra “Mutant and proud!” Ugh.
X-Men: The Last Stand did take the equality and tolerance theme so far as to have the President introduce Grammer’s ‘Beast’ character as the new U.S. Ambassador for Mutant-Human relations, but that managed to come off as merely comic book silly – not utopian condescension.
Riding shotgun to acceptance and tolerance, is another X-Men mantra. With the true evil taking place in Syria right now, and much of the Middle East experiencing upheaval resulting in uncertain times for Israel, the moral equivalency stance is a reckless one to promote. Especially ironic when you consider Brian Singer and his writers use the horrors of the Holocaust to cement ‘Magneto’s’ motivation for his wicked ways. He has justifiable rage, right? So he is only “evil” if you lack nuance.
My final complaint with X-Men: First Class is the gratuitous rubbish the filmmakers threw in for reasons unknown. So often I am disgusted with my fellow Hollywoodians and wonder aloud “Was there no adult in the room to stand up and say ‘Bad idea?!?!” There is an unnecessary scene set in a gambling room with scantily clad escorts that wreaks of really cheesy Austin Powers parody. Then, one of the mutant recruits is a poor, misunderstood tattooed stripper who sprouts really lame looking Tinkerbell wings as her “power.” Double ugh.
Final ugh. Our two heroes walk into a pub and find…‘Wolverine!’ How cool. The audience I sat with was audible in its satisfaction of the familiar face. But when they approach the fuzzy mutant, he can only offer “Go (eff) yourself.”
As ‘Professor X‘ says to the recruits midway through the film when he catches them being mischievious with their powers: “I expect more from you.”
Singer (The Usual Suspects) directed the first X-Men, which was excellent. He handed the sequel to the temperamental Brett Ratner who did an admiral job with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – then rewarded X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) to Gavin Hood.
This one was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who made the surprisingly rich Layer Cake.
Gentlemen, I expect more from you.