Wednesday, June 15, 2011

FILM REVIEW: X-Men: First Class

I went into this film seeking an education—good or bad. I just wanted to know more about the band of mutants known as the X-Men. Of all the superhero characters in Marvel, DC, and graphic novel history, they are the ones I've followed the longest and bonded with the most. They tell the misfit outsider allegory better than all the other hero characters. Batman may be an isolated wealthy orphan, Spider-man may be an arachnid-powered teenage klutz, and Superman may be a godlike alien, but the X-Men are mutants. They're not just morally different or physically gifted. They're deformed, disfigured, and often devoid of self-esteem. They are the ultimate outsiders.

The best part of an X-Men film is meeting a new mutant, learning what their power is, and hearing about their struggle to fit in and survive. If you've seen the previous films, you know that Xavier (James McAvoy from Wanted) is a telepath, Magneto (Michael Fassbender from Inglorious Basterds) can move all metals, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone) can transform into anyone, and Beast (Nicholas Hoult from "Skins" and Clash of the Titans) is super strong, agile, and smart. In this film, you not only get to meet new mutants from the comic annals, but you also get to learn how these X-Men first met and the catalyst that drove them to become the people they were in the previous films.
Much like Clark Kent & Lex Luthor and Peter Parker & Harry Osborn, at the core of this story are two men who used to be friends and who felt instantly like brothers. When I first encountered this dichotomy in other stories, I figured it was a necessary plot tool to emphasize the struggle of Good against Evil that echoes the strife between God and the Devil, but in this film it becomes even more evident that this bond also arises from the hero's desire to save the future-villain, and for the future-villain to take one last final grasp at the possibility of being like the hero. It's when the villain finally realizes that they can't, that they finally give themselves to the Dark Side.

This is when we get to see the rise of a villain. I've decided that this is my favorite kind of origin story. It's fun to watch as Spider-man learns to use his webs and Superman learns to fly, but it turns out it's actually way more fun to watch a villain pre-villainy, and witness as he goes from heartbroken victim to vicious serial killer. It's fun because it has you at odds with yourself. On the one hand, you want to root for this guy who was forced to watch his mother die, who survived a concentration camp, who has felt discrimination as both a mutant and a human, but at the same time you are human. You're supposed to be rooting for your own species. Siding with him would be like siding with Hitler. And so you're torn.
Fassbender does an incredible job of illustrating this inner turmoil—taking you on his revenge missions, avenging his mother's death, and seeking restitution for his childhood of experimental abuse, but also adopting Hitler's mantra that there is indeed a superior race. Of course, he thinks of it more as an evolutionary superiority than an aesthetic one. No need to possess blonde hair and blue eyes. No, the superior race is a species of individuals who have superpowers, and in the history of Science, the more dominant race eventually assists in the extinction of the inferior one. Destroying the humans is the only natural step—Science behooves it. Completely logical and completely insane.
*Spoilers from this point on. But such a logic can seem enticing or attractive to an oppressed mutant—someone who has endured one too many days of feeling judged, and worst of all, at a young age, controlled. They want more than anything to be free, to feel accepted, and Magneto promised that. So Mystique was putty in his hands. Of all the young mutants, she had the best reason to want acceptance. Her natural form is a redheaded, scaly, blue chameleon. No girl, whether she's 10 or 20 wants to be seen as anything but pretty. No matter how smart or accomplished, they are conditioned since birth to believe that their beauty is directly proportionate to their worth. So imagine growing up having to use most of your energy to keep up a facade of blonde beauty so as not to scare off the small-minded humans. When we first met Mystique in 2000's X-Men, she seemed two-dimensional. She was just sexy, devious, and sadistic. But in this film, she was more complex, a tortured soul that found a kindred spirit in Magneto, the only person who believed she was beautiful in her natural form. So again, you could hate her, or you could sympathize with her struggle.
We also learn that the deciding factor in her defection to Magneto's side was Hank McCoy's harsh rejection. He wanted them both to take a serum he designed that would make them "normal." He broke her heart. But Hank's story was far more intricate than a love-story-gone-wrong. He embodied the Jekyll & Hyde allegory, which Xavier teaches us isn't about Good & Evil, but about man's attempt to cage his primal desires. Had he accepted them, he wouldn't have turned himself into full-on Beast.
But even once he succumbs, he doesn't ultimately turn against the human race and join Magneto. He still wants to be human and that desire is what drives him to protect them. And so as you watch these mutant backstories unfold you start to choose a side. Do you root for the mutants who want to fight against the close-minded, power-hungry, war-driven humans? Or do you root for the mutants who selflessly risk themselves for humanity no matter the consequences? Tough choice, I know.
My favorite character, besides Magneto and Beast (even though looked like a blue Thundercat), was Alex Summers aka Havok (Lucas Till from The Spy Next Door). I really didn't expect to like this particular mutant after watching the trailer. His power is cool, but I figured he'd be a one-note character without an actual personality, since he wasn't a main character. But in the few short minutes he had on screen, he established a sparring rapport with Beast, learned to control his gift in spite of his reluctance, and basically reminded me of a young Wolverine.

Speaking of Wolverine, the surprise cameos were inspired. Xavier and Magneto encountered him at a bar for like five seconds when they were recruiting. He, in great Wolverine fashion, blew them off. I think I also spotted a young, white-haired Storm in the cloudy plane of Cerebro's realm. And in an attempt to seduce Magneto, Mystique turned into her older form and we got a "sneak peek" of Rebecca Romijn-O'Connell. There were also verbal references to their future selves, like when Xavier refuses to shave his head in order to better use Cerebro.

But those cheap thrills weren't my fave parts of the film. No I loved Magneto's solo revenge missions that were very Bond-esque, the mutant training sessions, especially Banshee's (Caleb Landry Jones from The Last Exorcism), Magneto's choice of weapon against Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) that paid homage to his mom, and the slow motion scene where we get to watch Xavier's final transformation into Professor X, as a bullet compromises his spinal chord. Excruciating and poignant.
I think the final question that everyone asks after watching this film is "Which is your favorite in the saga?" I use to watch the cartoon all the time, but it wasn't until I saw the live-action version of these heroes that I really started to love them, so that's why the first film that hit theaters in 2000 will always be my favorite. And despite the fact that Shaw's evil minions weren't as impressive as his protege—especially January Jones ("Mad Men"), who was a poor-man's Romijn—this film runs a close second. I can't wait to watch the sequel and see the next chapter in their lives. One honor it can certainly boast is being the best comic book prequel ever.

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