Your mutant powers don’t do anything to make me forget what’s happening here.


Theatrical Release Date: 06/03/2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Álex González , Jason Flemyng, Zoë Kravitz, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, Lucas Till
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 12 minutes


Trailer:

I hope you’re reaching for the comic books to see what’s gone wrong here.

More than likely, you’re reading this review because you saw at least one of the previous “X-Men” films and are wondering if parting with $10 to $20 dollars to see “X-Men: First Class” is a good idea. (Hallelujah, it’s not in 3D!)

The film is a prequel, meant to show us how it all began for Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and his School for the Gifted back in the 1960s. We’re introduced to the founding members of the X-Men (I’ll yell about this soon), shown how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier started out as friends before becoming leaders on opposite sides of the Mutant Movement, and also given an alternate reality scenario of the Cuban Missile Crisis (if you’re a member of AARP or have taken American History, you know what really happened).

Before I leap onto my high horse (a la my recent Soapbox) and talk about the job Vaughn, 20th Century Fox and the rest of the gang did in terms of staying faithful to the comics, I’ll break the film down on its own merits.

On the plus side, and holding it all together are McAvoy and Fassbender. The two of them are superb and couldn’t have been better cast. Their scenes together are the best of the film, lending real gravitas to the project. Should the long-delayed Magneto origins movie get moving again, they clearly should make sure Fassbender is available in order to make it work.

Rose Byrne is an actress I hold near and dear, whose beauty and vulnerability makes it hard for me to remain objective. Trying my best to put that aside, she does fine here (disregarding the fact that the character of Moira MacTaggert is Scottish and a genetics expert, not American and a member of the C.I.A.). Not enough is developed between her and Xavier to warrant some of the emotions shown in the final scenes but at least those emotions are true to the comics.

The weak links in the film are the so-called ‘First Class’. None of them hold much presence on-screen, which is surprising considering Jennifer Lawrence (playing Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) have shown excellent acting chops in other features (“Winter’s Bone” & “A Single Man“, respectively).

Even the villains don’t come off as all that menacing. Kevin Bacon showed far more in his role as the bad guy in “Super“, shading his character there with a charm that belied the nasty streak underneath. His flunkies are just that – flunkies. January Jones’ version of telepath/chesty ice queen Emma Frost looks the part but should be a more vicious character, not the subservient secretary a la her part on “Mad Men”. The other henchmen get no dialogue that I can remember and simply play with their powers whenever the opportunity arrives.

The problems inherent in how the characters come off on-screen stem mostly from a script that doesn’t give them much to work with, as the focus is squarely on Xavier, Magneto, and their opposed viewpoints on how well mutants and humans can co-exist. With so many new characters to introduce that supposedly play pivotal roles, keying in on one relationship is bound to make the others feel hollow.

Boiling it all down, what audiences are left with for a little over 2 surprisingly well-paced hours, is your run of the mill fantasy/action film. The script is certainly nothing to write home about. The effects are a cross between state of the art and seemingly unfinished, with no evident reason as to why some come off so well and others look clunky (or in the case of the blue furred Beast effects, they look childish). And the story makes basic sense but many of the character dynamics and references are at odds with the three films this is supposed to be a prequel of.

Basically, had it not been for McAvoy and Fassbender, I don’t know how it would have been possible for this to work. Thankfully they are there, and they’re very good in their roles. The film lays the groundwork for more adventures, which is good for the producers’ bottom lines. I hope that any future installments take advantage of the myriad of comic book story lines that don’t revolve around the struggle between humans and mutants, since that’s been the case of all four movies so far, but I also hope my lottery numbers hit. And I have more faith in them than the people behind the X-films at this point.

With that out of the way, allow me to nerd it up.

Look, when I first heard Vaughn would be directing this, I held out hope. He did such a good job with “Kick-Ass”, I thought that maybe he’d stay more true to the comics than the previous films did. Sadly, twas not to be. Doing a quick dig on the Internet, one can see that he had a significant hand in “X3” (which most, including myself, consider the worst of the franchise): writing parts of the screenplay and at one point being onboard to direct only to drop out in order to do “Stardust” (I don’t even know where to begin yelling about that last sentence and now consider “Kick-Ass” to be a fluke success). With “First Class”, he seems not only content but proud to further muddy the continuity from comic to screen.

He and Jane Goldman co-wrote the screenplay here again, with the two lads who did the recently released “Thor” (which was a decent film, though they mixed and match the Norse God’s comic book origins also). However, whereas some of the origin story for Thor was changed, they at least kept the character relationships and general descriptions pretty much on point. With the X-Men, it’s been one series of inexplicable changes after the other, showing little true reverence for the source material.

Since this is supposed to be a prequel, any reference to the other films should be consistent. Anyone doing the math on Beast can see that Kelsey Grammar isn’t 64 in “X3″. However, by changing the comic origins yet again, the script does weasel its way out of this problem. But how then can you also make a quick reference to an adolescent Storm when Halle Berry would kill you for saying she’s 10 years older than it shows on her birth certificate? And throwing in a cutesy Wolverine nod contradicts his introduction in the first “X-Men” film. Nice job of being consistent, assholes.

And why is Alex Summers no longer Scott Summers’ (Cyclops) brother (as stated by producer Bryan Singer in an interview linked in my soapbox)? Oh, because for continuity’s sake, you couldn’t have the younger brother be 40 years older? THEN DON’T USE THE CHARACTER. And certainly don’t fuck up his power signature (It’s not red and it doesn’t project outwards like an out of control hula hoop or need a control device strapped to his chest). I mean, c’mon man!

Then there’s the idiocy of saying these are the first X-Men. The first students of Xavier’s that he puts out into the field are as follows:

Cyclops – The brother/not-brother of Alex Summers
Jean Grey – Famke, I miss you
Beast – Hey they got one right!
Iceman – Rogue’s crush in the first “X-Men”, which is so not right
Angel – No, not the one in this film, the kid with the wings in “X3″

How you turn it into Beast, Banshee, Havok & Mystique makes no sense whatsoever. All of the character dynamics are fucked up and it’s simply a really odd combination of mutants. I doubt any fan of the comics would team these four up unless forced to in some terrible video game.

While all of that is distressing enough to my fragile little mind, perhaps the most egregious character dynamics stem from placing Mystique into Xavier’s life when they were kids, growing up together as quasi-siblings. This too makes no sense in terms of continuity with the rest of the series, and is SO FUCKING WRONG in terms of the comics that I think my head might explode.

Then there’s this little nugget … which is a SPOILER, so if you want to read it, highlight the empty space between this sentence and the next visible paragraph.

We get to see how Xavier gets paralyzed … only they DO IT WRONG. His spine was actually crushed by a large stone dropped on him by a villain never mentioned in any of the films (or important in the comics aside from that moment really). There’s no real need to even do it in this film to begin with so why bother? Oh, because it’ll be dramatic and help Magneto and Mystique’s character turns in the end? UGH.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg and for me to rattle off all the things that drive me crazy as an X-Men fan would warrant me getting some kind of postgraduate degree at the end of all this. Suffice to say, I’ve got problems with how Vaughn and company continue to mishandle the characters – either because they think it’s cooler (IT’S NOT), or because it’s more convenient (way to earn those paychecks).

What makes the unnecessary changes to the stories and characters developed in the comics over the last 50 years so much worse is that these films are an attempt to touch the fanboys’ inner child … sadly, it’s more like inner child molestation and there aren’t cops for this sort of thing (our buying dollars are all that studios listen to).

For those who say that given what had been done to the franchise in the first three films, this was beyond their expectations, please take me off of your Facebook friend list. Rather than shoehorn this in as a prequel simply to hope the box office magic rubs off, here was a chance to REboot, REload, or REstart a franchise; this is more like watching Vaughn RElieve himself on a pile of X-Men comic books.

Why not remake “Red Dawn” and change the enemy combatants to North Koreans? Why not remake “The Crow” and let the guy who directed “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” call ‘action’? Why not remake “Akira” into a live-action movie and set it in New York, filling the cast with actors twice the age of the characters? Oh wait, all of those things are currently in some stage of development.

sidenote: I HATE YOU HOLLYWOOD.

And I’m left more than a little perplexed at reviews that are equating Vaughn’s effort with the transformation given to the Batman effort by Christopher Nolan. For one thing, coming off the Joel Schumacher efforts, a movie about a guy who had bats for pets would have been more true to the caped crusader; There was no pretense of changing the formula in the X-films, this was merely changing the time period. For another, there’s a sea-change of tone and artistry on display between “Batman & Robin” and “Batman Begins”, let alone the impressiveness of “The Dark Knight“. Vaughn has made a film that, stripped of the pretenses he’s following the comic books, delivers on being a summer popcorn flick. It’s not some grand rebirth of the franchise, however.

The reason we’re given a prequel and not a continuation of the previous films probably has more to do with the high salaries and shooting schedules of the stars than with a creative impulse. Plus, Hollywood only thinks in trilogies these days (unless they’re adapting novels, those they can split into however many parts they want), so we’ll see two more of this crop and then Fox will find some way to spit out a different trilogy in about 8 years.

Sadly, all of my ranting and raving will amount to nothing. I’m sure “X-Men: First Class” will rake in enough money to buy a few people some vacation homes and as long as you have no attachment to the franchise, it’s just another dumb action flick. If I assumed no prior knowledge of the characters, I’d give the film a 3 out of 5. And yes, for all of you out there (which is most of you) who aren’t diehard X-Men comics fans, I’m sure this expensive summer blockbuster will do the trick.

That doesn’t make it okay to piss on those of us who really care about the characters. With all of these books, comics, graphic novels, short stories, etc., etc. being adapted into films, why not stay as true as possible to the source material? It worked for Harry Potter, it worked for The Lord of the Rings. If you’re going to make up a bunch of shit, just say the movie is “inspired by” whatever it is and move on. Don’t keep trying to say you care about what’s being mangled and shoved down our eye sockets on-screen.

But as such, since I do care about these characters (like anyone adapting them into movies should), and you’re already quite aware of the bias I have, I’ll give it the rating that makes my fondled inner child feel better: a 2 … which matches the one given to “X3″ but this one hurts more because Vaughn and company had a chance to correct the problems … they just chose not to. You decide which rating to go with, based on your emotional/intellectual involvement with the source material.

And now, I just can’t wait for some sequels! (Vaughn has already hinted he has ideas.) There might still be a few pockets of hope that future installments could rummage through in order to fully render me dead inside. So I guess the cold, empty embrace of apathy is apparently all I have to look forward to. But don’t worry, should they keep screwing with the integrity of the X-Men, I’ll keep yelling on the Internet. It’s sort of what I do.

2 out of 5