X-Asperated, by David Bax
In theory, all you need to make a good movie is one good idea, a support beam or a backbone to hang the rest of the project on. X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the X-Men trilogy Bryan Singer kicked off over a decade ago, has that one good idea. It was there in the comic books, or so I’m told. In any case, it was there already, inherent in the story. The question of how an oppressed, persecuted group should go about combating that persecution is the central conflict. Given that the comic book started in America in the 1960’s, the most obvious and likely the most influential parallel has always been to the civil rights movement and to the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But it’s also about Gandhi and about Che Guevara and Martin Luther and Baader-Meinhof and the Weathermen and the “No on Proposition 8” protests here in Los Angeles just a few years ago. It’s a rich vein and an idea that should have no difficulty supporting an entire film as an analogy.
The problem with X-Men: First Class – or chief among the many problems – is that director Matthew Vaughn and his three fellow screenwriters (in addition to two “story by” credits) weren’t content with that one good idea and so they kept piling more on. Some of them work. For instance, tracking down Nazi war criminals in Argentina certainly serves the existing theme and enriches the world we already know from the other films. But most of these ideas appear to be the type that started with the words “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
There are a number of action set-pieces, some of them very thrilling (a fight on and around a naval battleship makes good and exciting use of the various participants’ mutant powers) and some of them very dumb (the bad guys’ invasion of CIA headquarters, which should be a central turning point of the film, is lazy at best). The scenes in between these are the real offenders, though. They exist for no other reason than to get the characters in place for the next fight or training montage or big, groan-inducing speech.
The ham-fisted dialogue is worthy of contempt not only because it’s bad writing but because it’s bad writing about such an important topic. This is tolerance and humanity we’re talking about, so every embarrassingly earnest utterance of the phrase “mutant and proud” is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who apparently has the nerve to take a big-budget comic book movie seriously. For those who snobbishly consider themselves above the superhero genre, I’m afraid that X-Men: First Class sadly strengthens their case.
One of the crimes a franchise with a built-in fan-base comes up against is the temptation toward fan service. Vaughn and company regrettably gave in and then some in that area. There are eye-rolling in-jokes, such as having characters – on more than one occasion! – make reference to Charles Xavier, played here by James McAvoy, possibly going bald someday. In addition, there are a couple of uninspired cameos. One of them is stupid enough to make you want to look away from the screen. The other at least goes a way toward atoning for its existence by making good use of the PG-13 rating’s one allowed “fuck.”
Another, more insipid form of fan service exists here as well. According to the stereotypes, superhero fandom is the sole realm of the sexually frustrated, eternally pubescent male. Whether that is true or not (it isn’t), Vaughn definitely made his movie as if it were. There is so much unnecessary T&A on display here (always shy of nudity, of course; remember that PG-13) that it borders on being a running gag. An early sequence that is baldly a mere excuse to have Rose Byrne running around in lingerie for ten minutes was one of the first clues that this film had gone off the rails.
Scenes like that one are the reason First Class feels so overlong at 138 minutes. There is a good movie buried in here somewhere. As mentioned before, the central idea is a strong one and when the movie hews close to that roadmap, it’s at its best. The recurring use of a submarine as metaphor for something dwelling in the subconscious is particularly well-executed, mostly because it’s subtle, which almost nothing else here is. The same logic applies to the performances. The only good ones are those having to do with the main theme. As a result, McAvoy, who has been spotty in the past, is sturdy here and Jennifer Lawrence, so great in Winter’s Bone, seems incapable of expressing a believable human (or mutant) emotion.
The film’s climactic scene, which I won’t spoil, takes place on a beach. The harsh sunlight and lack of shade are nicely representative of the fact that it’s here and now that the characters have to face their ideological differences, which they’ve been trying to avoid for the whole running time. This scene is a fantastic. Not only is it written and acted superbly, it makes solid dramatic use of the movie’s special effects budget and capabilities. However, when I should have been wrapped up in the emotions and events played out before me, I was instead preoccupied with a distracting thought: If Matthew Vaughn had this in him, how the hell did he mess up the rest of the film so badly?