Monday, June 13, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: X-Men First Class

I think its worth mentioning that at one point in the comics, the X-Men battled a villain named Count Nefaria.  And maybe that's who the villain should have been in X-Men: First Class, because, goodness, that Kevin Bacon was most certainly a bad guy.

You're pretty much doomed to a life of villainy with a  name like "Nefaria".
I was a huge (HUGE) X-fan for a good stretch of my adolescence, and you can probably blame quite a bit of my comics fandom on Uncanny X-Men #210, which was the first time I read and re-read and re-read a comic like that.  And it taught me to buy back-issues, which is why I have a run of Uncanny that extends from issue 168 straight to 330 or so before I miss an issue.*  Looking at release dates, that's about a decade of straight X-Men reading between 210 and 330, and quite a bit of back-issue buying I did, and it represents a pretty good chunk of a young person's life, from age 11 to 21.

But when I parted ways with X-Men, we'd significantly grown apart.  X-Men had become more a book about oddly drawn characters with lots of pockets and enormous weaponry than a book about mutants protecting the very humans who hated and feared them.

Aside from picking up Grant Morrison's New X-Men, which I felt was the logical conclusion of the problem the X-Men were supposed to be dealing with, its been very spotty for me ever since.  I missed most of the ret-conned back story that was torn down and rebuilt as X-Men: First Class.  I only knew who the red-demon guy (Azazel) was thanks to the nerd-rage about the character online back when Chuck Austen was writing X-Men.

All in all, unlike Jamie, I more or less liked X-Men: First Class.  It was actually much better plotted and better thought out than the scatter-shot attempts by Marvel to create a past for the X-Men that predates Uncanny X-Men #1, and a fairly ridiculous history of Professor X getting in and out of wheelchairs.**  I'm not sure I felt the producers did a great job of sticking to period-contemporary looks for any of the characters but Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost, but I don't suppose the audience would particularly notice such an oversight.  5 seasons of Mad Men have spoiled me, I guess.

Its also a bit hard to get your head around the insertion of fantasy allegorical characters into something as real and as present as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I understand this is not meant to be what "secretly really happened" or anything, but not since The Final Countdown have I thought such an iffy choice was made about inserting sci-fi into reality.

The story, which chronicles the earliest days of mutants discovering one another and trying to determine their fate, is a tragedy, and does a good job of making both the viewpoints of Erik (one day to be Magneto) and Charles (the future Professor X) sympathetic enough, casting Sebastian Shaw (who I know from his appearances in Hellfire Club stories from X-Men) as our unquestionable villain of the piece.

Marvel has always had a problem on its hands with the X-Books in that the more humanity attacks, hates and despises mutants, the more it seemed Magneto had a point (this came later, after they admitted that Magneto's "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" didn't exactly sound like something one would call their own group).  Its taken strong writers over the years to sell the "Dream of Xavier" that mutants would dream of living in peace and harmony with the same people and governments building giant robots to seek and kill them, but in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement and in the ever-growing movement for gay rights, the allegory still holds well enough.

And seeing that division play out on film, something we know went wrong from the first twenty minutes of the original X-Men film, is what this movie is all about.  While we know this will go sour, its in the knowing that the tragedy plays out, and that part of the film works.

The film, however, has its faults.  I mentioned my issue with the costuming and unease with using a very serious historical event to frame the story.  But...  for a movie that depended on make-up, the "creature" make-up for Hank McCoy just seemed badly executed, and they still haven't really figured out how to not make the scales on Mystique just look sort of spirit-gummed on.

But, mostly it suffers from the "too many characters" syndrome that has always affected the X-films.  In order to provide fan service and provide a sense of a population existing out there, mutant after mutant gets put in front of the camera, and even characters who appear throughout the movie might not get named (I had to check IMDB to make sure that one guy was Riptide, who I hadn't seen since...  1986?).  This leads to short shrift on potentially strong storylines and even a character death that makes you wonder why they bothered to add that character to begin with.***

And, of course, like all X-Movies, no matter the context or better ambitions, it still boils down to a "mad scientist scheme that makes no sense", just like in X1, X2, X3 and Wolverine.  I was never clear on how Shaw thought atomizing and irradiating the planet was going to help, or why he was, uh...  that whole thing at the end he was maybe going to do, what with the grippy deals.  What WAS he doing?

On the other side, this movie featured lots of January Jones in her skivvies, and I'd be lying if I hadn't told anyone who would listen to me:  "Yes, I am going to see the movie with January Jones in her underwear."  And so I did.

Production value!****
You know, I like Jones quite a bit on Mad Men, but I strongly suspect that Jones is more or less going to be Jones in every role, which is fine for Betty Draper, but I'm not sure that was exactly right for Emma Frost.  Oh, well.

The ladies will be happy that they got James "I'm Non-Threatening!" McAvoy and Michael "Damn, I'm Handsome" Fassbender to ogle as they try to find middle ground on this whole "let's kill the humans/ no, let's not" thing.

Oh, also, I think Jamie is right when she stated that CG is becoming terribly obvious and unfun for her.  In the case of this movie, I might find myself occasionally in agreement.

While I wouldn't say X-Men: First Class is exactly a semester's worth of ethics courses, its nice to have a summer action film that bothers to set up legitimate conflicts (albeit, allegorical conflicts), and with some hint of a conscience to them.  Its likely the best of the X-Movies to date, which isn't saying much, but it pulls the franchise back from the abyss created by X3 and Wolverine, and I suppose I'd see the next X-installment.

*and then it looks like I said "eff you" to the X-Men, because its about 30 issues before I tried another issue.
**let this be a lesson to DC as they approach the return of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl
***SPOILER - you killed the black guy?  Really?  Did you not check the movie-cliche-handbook at ALL?
**** By the way, this was actually a comic-based costuming decision.  This is how Frost appeared in comics when I was reading X-Men.
funny how this character became popular...


Anonymous said...

I think Cable's wacky origins perfectly sums up the craziness of the X universe..."So your dad married the clone of his dead girlfriend and then you were sent forward in time and then returned to the past to fight alongside your dad and his now-not-dead girlfriend and your biological mother was a demon for a while ... "?

The League said...

This may have been when I started to feel the X-Books had lost focus...

Actually, immediately upon Claremont leaving and the introduction of Bishop (huge gun, puckets, mullet, from the FUTURE) was when I started getting the feeling that me and X-Men would part ways, and it still took years to decouple.

Dug said...

Yep, Bishop, Cable, Forge... That's when I lost interest.

I liked this movie a lot more than you did. They made a lot of mistakes as you've pointed out, but I didn't feel that it took away from the heart of the story, the development of Erik's character, which I thought was handled very well.

January Jones was a weak spot, and I thought Kevin Bacon was fine but miscast. But the movie was fun. Charles as a pick-up guy was great, and that cameo in the bar was really well done. By far my favorite of the X-Men films, followed by X-Men 2.

Simon MacDonald said...

I wanna say like you guys I dropped the X-Men right after the X-Cutioner's Song but since that ended in Uncanny #297 and I know I collected until sometime after issue #300 that must not have been the end. Although I distinctly remember thinking that I was really disappointed with that storyline and that was the beginning of the end X-Men collecting for me.

I'd like to see this movie but I can't see me running out the the theaters just yet. I'm glad they've returned to making good (better) X-Men movies after X3 and Wolverine. I actually had high hopes for Wolverine 2 but they can't seem to get a director on board.

The League said...

I liked the idea of Forge, and I liked that Storm's boyfriend seemed like a 3-dimensional character back in the Life/Death stories. But, yeah, they certainly went off and made him another hi-tech, gun-toting dude at some point.

I actually liked the movie quite well. If I found a lot to comment on, I think all of the weak spots were overshadowed for me by the strength of the ethical dilemma at the center of the movie (and Erik's knowledge of what Sebastian Shaw made him). I don't know if I'll pick it up on Blu-Ray, but I had fun, and I thought it was certainly smarter than "Thor".

The League said...

The weirdest thing to me about my X-Men collection is that it includes whole sections I no longer remember. For example, I vacuely remember really not liking X-Cutioner's song, but I don't remember anything about it other than back then, I didn't buy the tie-in's and it was thus very confusing.

Simon MacDonald said...

I got every part of the storyline and it was no less confusing.

Paul Toohey said...

The movie was alright, although I feel like I might have enjoyed X2 and X1 better. My feeling sitting through the film was that Vaughan really isn't a very good director, and maybe they should have entrusted the film to someone with a little more experience. Especially in the 2nd Act I was more or less not enjoying the film, although the end was enjoyable.

I wonder if January Jones wasn't directed to act "ice like" and that is why her performance seems so...not very good. Yes, it did feel like Betty Draper was a superhero to some degree, but I have to think she's got more acting ability then was presented in the film.

I felt that this was about on-par with Thor, but am really starting to get excited for Cap America...which I think might blow the two out of the water...we'll see.

The League said...

I, uh... After her performance on SNL last year, I think that may just be Ms. Jones. That's more or less her Betty Draper, too, so I can see why they cast her. And I like Jones a lot on "Mad Men", but, uh... yeah.

Man, I have to say I thought this movie was much smarter than Thor and a different kind of movie.

My concern for Cap is the director. We'll see. But I admit the trailer is one of the best of the summer movies.