Big Screen Brain: X-Men First Class

I have now seen X-Men: First Class twice. So, those of you who haven’t seen it at all yet, Get On That. I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s any more than average as a whole. But it is unarguably entertaining.

X-Men: First Class is a prequel/sequel to the other X-Men movies of the past decade AND it is a Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, Stardust) film BUT, it tries so hard to be both simultaneously that it succeeds and fails in equal measure.

How It Succeeds As A Matthew Vaughn Film:

1) Casting
The actors are the usual mix of well-knowns and sadly-not-well-knowns. The cast includes The Guy From Atonement (James McAvoy as Charles Xavier), The Girl From Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique), The Guy From Everything Ever (Kevin Bacon as The Bad Guy), and a shark* (Michael Fassbender as Magneto). January Jones‘ cleavage is also featured prominently (to be fair, there really isn’t any other way to feature it).

2) Assholes
The ultimate rule of Matthew Vaughn films is, the more asshole-y a character is, the more AWESOME they are. And also the better the performance is. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon really live this out to the fullest, Kevin Bacon and his nine languages and his sideburns in particular. Fassbender makes an excellent jerk, but he’s hindered somewhat by his Tragic Past and ever-present angst. Bacon is at his melodramatic supervillainy best. How do you tell he succeeds better? He can wear the helmet without inspiring mockery. Fassbender just looks like a douche (although maybe that’s because Magneto went a little crazy with the spray paint and added a hood ornament).

3) Environment
One of my favorite parts of Matthew Vaughn’s style is, well, the style, the mastery of every visual element. First Class is fully infused with the flavor of the sixties. The villains in particular are steeped in it, from the interior spaces of the submarine and the Vegas nightclub to the costumes. Especially the costumes, in my opinion. Basically every man in the film knows how to really wear a suit (or a pair of shorts, if called for). And (when she wears clothes,) January Jones has some truly phenomenal Mod outfits.

How It Fails As A Matthew Vaughn Film:

1) PG-13 Rating
Let’s just all agree: Matthew Vaughn is not a PG-13 kind of guy. Imagine Kick-Ass with a PG-13 rating. Exactly. You can’t. Just like he can’t make his usual beyond-off-color raunchy jokes or put the vocabulary of a sailor in the mouth of a ten-year-old girl while stuck within the X-Men franchise. You can feel his discomfort in the softer scenes, especially compared to the ease of strip/nightclub scenes and the Wolverine cameo.

2) Narrative
The storyline of this film is not well-structured. It is not cohesive. It isn’t really a single story you can sink your teeth into. Vaughn’s trademark is totally comprehensive narratives about characters who be have in totally incomprehensible and unpredictable ways. This film just had way too many elements to tie all together. The writing team and all did their best, no question, but that only goes so far sometimes.

How It Succeeds As An X-Men Film

1) Superhero-y-ness
There are enough cheesy catch-phrases, grandiose proclamations, and intense stare-downs in this film to satisfy any eight fans of the genre. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders; no more”, “Well, I adapt to survive. So I guess that means I’m going with you.” “MUTANT AND PROUD.” Need I say more?

2) Special Effects
There are some seriously cool moments in this movie, FX-wise. Emma Frost’s diamond form (particularly the moment when it cracks). Any time Sebastian Shaw uses his powers. Darwin’s transformations. And of course, the flying submarine. Perhaps the coolest moment of all is when Hank McCoy’s feet are briefly made human then transformed from that surprisingly-still-hairy state to full Beast mode. It is a digital moment both impressive and grotesque, and it is awesome.

3) Conclusion
First Class remains true to franchise form and delivers an ending that is technically a victory for the good guys but somehow feels ambiguous in spite of that. This narrative choice is probably the most ingenious element of the X-Men movies because that less-than-happy, semi-cliffhanger type ending is really the secret to assuring there will be an audience for a sequel. No matter how we feel about what has transpired in the current film, we want to see what happens in the next one.

How It Fails As An X-Men Film

1) Wolverine
Yes, I know it would be canonically incorrect to have Wolverine all over this movie. But can we just agree: a twenty-second cameo is not enough, no matter how hilarious.

2) Sentiment
Often the emotional storylines of this franchise are overdone to the point of being intolerably saccharine. But First Class faulted toward the opposite pole. Even where I wanted to connect emotionally – the death of Magneto’s mother, when Professor X gets shot, – I couldn’t quite. Rather than melodramatic, the characters seemed almost underemotive. I will give credit where credit is due, though; Jennifer Lawrence kicked the touchy-feely crap out of that scene where Beast insists she is not beautiful just as she is and the related scenes that followed.

I absolutely did enjoy this movie…clearly, given I’ve seen it twice already. It has a very talented cast, features some typically excellent work by one of my favorite directors, and the aesthetic elements are fantastic. Even where it loses me, it doesn’t really, because what’s done poorly (or at least, done in poor taste) is great fodder for mockery and unintended hilarity. It’s FUN, and that’s the important part.

* I am not the originator of the Michael-Fassbender-Is-A-Shark idea, but I am riding shotgun on the bandwagon. I think originally the comparison was drawn because of the teeth – seriously, he has SO MANY FREAKING TEETH – and the excessive grimacing that shows off said teeth. It is probably fortunate I hadn’t heard the shark thing the first time I saw the movie because it was pretty much all I could think about the second time around. My overactive brain even extended the parallel to apply to his profile, the amount of time he spends in water, and even the nature of his character. It is quite an apt comparison when you get down to it. (But, honestly, it’s mostly just The Teeth.)

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