Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Touched For the Very First Time: X-Men: First Class
Superhero movies are like orgies. Get enough extreme people in the room and suddenly the miraculous becomes mundane. By that description, X-Men First Class is an orgy full of virgins. Matthew Vaughn’s film traces the Marvel comic franchise to its roots – back when Professor Charles Xavier was just a cocky grad student, Magneto couldn’t levitate anything much bigger than a car battery and Mystique went by the equally stripperish name of Raven. Novices who barely understand their powers, never mind what it takes to harness them, these characters are special but not quite super, noble but not quite heroic or misguided but not quite villainous. They are mutants who are all too human, and that’s precisely what makes them interesting. The dirty little secret of comic book movies is that the stronger superheroes become, the more they tend to bore; pit two formidable opponents against one another and what you get, more often than not, is lots of thrusting, grunting, panting and a sense that each participant is trying to put off the climax for as long as possible. X-Men First Class, in contrast, is one of the rare superhero movies populated by characters who are more concerned with ultimate conquest than with foreplay.
Or so it seems to me. Admittedly, I know comic books only slightly better than I know orgies, so maybe this is an Ironman hangover talking. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to come across some superhero/villain fight scenes that don’t seem to be motivated by style points. Considering that this is a prequel, it takes some incredible suspension of disbelief to convince ourselves that these comic book icons are in any grave danger, but at least when these budding X-Men mix it up they seem as likely to hurt themselves as their opponents. There’s no suspense to be found by watching to see if they survive, but there’s intrigue to be had in watching to see how they survive. X-Men First Class can’t completely escape serving up fight scenes that come off like choreographed dance routines – it doesn’t help that whenever Azazel and Riptide strut out onto the battlefield wearing designer suits and come-hither stares they seem as likely to break out into West Side Story’s gym mambo as to throw down – but it successfully keeps its characters out of rhythm. Where so many superhero movies try to impress with excellence, X-Men First Class finds fashion in awkwardness.
Carrying most of the weight in this effort is one of the most graceful actors working today, Michael Fassbender. Taking on the role filled by Ian McKellen in the narratively subsequent films, Fassbender plays Magneto, or, more correctly, he plays Erik Lehnsherr who becomes Magneto. (Spoiler warning?) Magneto is the Darth Vader of the X-Men franchise: a one-time agent for good whose path to ultimate villainy is inspired by vengeance – retribution for the slaying of his mother. In one of the film’s key scenes, it’s Erik/Magneto who urges his fellow mutants to take the fight to the evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the name of those who have died at the villain’s hands. “We can avenge them,” Erik says, and it sounds heroic, but his words are tinged with rage. Whereas other mutants sprout dragonfly wings or grow blue fur, Erik’s metamorphosis into Magneto is emotional rather than physical, and yet Fassbender externalizes it beautifully through his mad eyes and tightened jaw. His good-natured chemistry opposite James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is equally convincing, which makes Erik’s ultimate descent into fury a genuine bummer. The Erik/Charles relationship is everything that George Lucas wanted the Anakin/Obi Wan relationship to be but failed to achieve. Their bond is so convincing that when Erik turns his back on Charles it plays like a shock, even if it’s the moment we’ve been waiting for all along.
Credit Vaughn for treating the action in this film as if it isn’t a foregone conclusion, and for creating a tone that’s harmoniously edgy and irreverent. Erik’s outbursts of violence are unflinchingly dark and cruel, and yet more often than not the film is light and playful; some of the mod sets are just this side of Austin Powers, as is some of the dialogue, and Vaughn further establishes a swinging 1960s vibe with a groovy split-screen montage. When X-Men First Class embraces and celebrates its status as the retro precursor for all that is to come, it’s a pleasant summer trifle. But when it tries to be meaningful, it’s a chore. To call the mutants’ frequent rants about their lack of societal acceptance “metaphoric” would be to falsely suggest their complaints are dramatically compelling within the margins of the narrative. Part of the problem is that these mutants complain about an ostracism we never actually see: Angel is supposedly tortured by her physical appearance, and yet she’s a stripper, volunteering herself to be ogled; Raven feels like an outsider because she’s naturally blue skinned, but she gets through the day by transforming herself to look like Jennifer Lawrence (and eventually Rebecca Romijn), which can’t be too rough; Hank McCoy, until he becomes the Muppet-like Beast, suffers from ugly feet, and thus works side-by-side with a non-mutant who doesn’t have a clue about his unusualness; and so on. I respect that the mutants’ sense of otherness is part of the franchise’s DNA, but X-Men First Class never makes their alienation more than words. The tone of their tortured testimonials seems to equate their private suffering with closeted homosexuality, but in practice these mutants come off like naturally gifted jugglers or trapeze artists bitching because life isn’t a circus designed for their enjoyment. It’s the mutant equivalent of the Twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems.
Superhero movies thrive on creation and discovery, origin stories and evolutions. The most compelling characters are the ones whose limits are easily understood. Superman can do about anything, but he’s undone by Kryptonite. Batman has a bad attitude and badass toys, but underneath the suit he’s just a regular dude. And so on. Genuine drama can’t be found without clearly understood vulnerability. After watching X-Men First Class, I couldn’t begin to tell you what Beast’s limitations are, or Mystique’s or Havok’s, but Magneto’s glaring weakness is obvious: he cannot let go. Whether that leads to his eventual undoing in one of the subsequent stories that’s already been filmed, I don’t know. (I saw one or two of the original X-Men flicks, but I don’t remember them.) As far as this film is concerned, it’s enough that Magneto’s vulnerability, which is alive even in his moments of incredible power and destruction, makes him compelling. In “future” X-Men incarnations, Magneto will take on the world. In this film, he battles himself.