Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bonus review: "X-Men: First Class"

I was away on a trip and missed the press screening for "X-Men: First Class." That's the bad news, and the reason for the lateness of this (brief) review. The good news is that there even was a press screening. 20th Century Fox has imposed a virtual ban of screenings of any kind in Indianapolis for nearly two years, so the fact that they relented -- after much lobbying by the Indiana Film Journalists Association members, I should add -- is in of itself a wonderful mutation of the status quo. Thanks, Fox.

A reboot of the "X-Men" franchise has both wisdom and foolishness behind it. Foolish, because it has not been that long since the first film essentially kicked off the current comic book movie mania 12 years ago. It has the reek of desperation about it, the familiar tale of a Hollywood bereft of ideas and falling back on recycled ones.

The wisdom is that ... well, the last X-Men movie was something of a disaster, and the spinoff of the wildly popular Wolverine character flopped. So the movies really didn't have anywhere else to go. It sort of built itself up for a dive into the Phoenix Saga, but then backed away.

Not to mention, time is a factor. The first set of films fixed very specific timelines for the Magneto and Dr. X characters, which would put them now in their early 80s. Apologies for pointing out the obvious, but fanboys like their mutants young and attractive, so by going back to the roots of the X-Men the filmmakers are able to accomplish that.

However, there are some timeline issues. We are introduced to Alex Summers, aka Havoc, as one of the new mutants who join Charles Xavier's team of mutant do-gooders. Of course, anyone familiar with the comics world of X-Men knows Alex is the younger brother of Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who we saw in the original movies as a young man nearly 40 years hence.

Other characters who were contemporaries of the original X-Men -- like Beast, aka Hank McCoy -- are transported back to his early time for convenience. For others who appeared in both films, like the shape-shifting Mystique (now played by Jennifer Lawrence), they simply fall back on the old "they're-a-mutant-so-they-age-slowly" trick. Convenient.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new flick. At its center is the conflict between Magneto and Dr. X, now played by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Xavier is a deeply empathetic character who uses his mind-reading abilities to nurture his students and nudge Magneto away from the path of anger and pain that has ruled his life. For his part, Magneto cannot let go of the horrors of the Nazi laboratories, or ignore the growing fear regular humans have for their mutated kin.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed last year's (in some ways) anti-comic book superhero movie "Kick Ass," has a good feel for this conflict. The movie does tend to waver when the focus slides too long away from the two men's relationship. I found the dilemma of Hank McCoy rather silly -- he works on creating a serum to make fantastic-looking mutants appear normal. In his case, his mutation consists of large monkey-like feet. Put on some shoes, problem solved.

Things are tougher for Mystique, whose natural form is blue and scaly. In this movie Xavier and Mystique have a long sibling-like relationship going back to childhood, but she feels more of a connection with the self-aware Magneto. It doesn't hurt that Xavier is sexually ambiguous about her appearance, while Magneto encourages her to let her freak flag fly.

I don't think the cinematic world really needed a new go-round of "X-Men" movies, but I liked this one so much that I can actually say I'm looking forward to another. And maybe another.

3 stars out of four

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