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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - X-Men: First Class

Continuing to plow through the X-Men franchise here on Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly blog about a movie I own.  We get to the reboot of the franchise, X-Men: First Class.  This appears in my notes at June 30, 2014.

So, for the next step in the X-Men franchise, 20th Century Fox actually had a few films in the works to be released under the X-Men Origins banner.  The next prequel was going to be X-Men Origins: Magneto, which explained young Erik Lensher's time after World War II and how he evolved into the supervillain we know and love today.  "The Piano meets X-Men" was the popular sell line.  But then, X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out, and was met with a dismissive shrug by the critics, making the studio think that maybe it was time to start throwing around the dreaded "R" word...reboot.

Around this time, Fox had been kicking around the idea of doing an adaptation of X-Men: First Class, a "Year One" tale, chronicling the early days of Professor Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted and the original team of X-Men.  Seemed like a good way to go with a reboot.  But they spent so much time and money developing X-Men Origins: Magneto, so they decided to put some of that into X-Men: First Class.  It looked like we had a movie!

And to oversee this reboot, they called upon the man who started the franchise...Bryan Singer.  Singer brought in his own writing team and they took a crack at the story.  Seeing that, based on the timeline, this movie would be taking place in the early-1960s, Singer incorporated bits of real history, mainly the Cuban Missile Crisis, and speculated what it would have been like if mutants were on the scene.  Things seemed ready to go...but Singer ran into delays with his fantasy film Jack the Giant Slayer, so he had to step down as director.  However, he did stay on as a producer. 

So, for a director, they turned to a man who almost did X-Men: The Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn.  Vaughn had been dancing around Marvel for some time.  As mentioned, he was the first choice to do The Last Stand, but he bowed out to do Stardust.  He was also deep in negotiations to do Thor, but while touring the Marvel offices, he discovered and fell in love with Kick-Ass, and chose to do that instead.  It was the success of Kick-Ass, as a matter of fact, that led Fox to reach out to Vaughn and say, "Please reboot X-Men for us."  Intrigued by the 1960s setting, Vaughn signed on.

And thus the stage was set for X-Men: First Class, the story of how Professor Charles Xavier formed his X-Men, and how he and Magneto grew to have differing views of the struggle for mutant rights.

First up, let me say, I love the 1960s setting.  I've already mentioned my affectation for superhero period pieces, so the decision to set it in the 1960s was genius.  And the fact that the plot - a terrorist wants to trigger World War III and rule over the remains once the USA and USSR have wiped each other out - does have James Bond overtones, which just adds to the 1960s feel.  My one complaint is that it doesn't feel 1960s enough.  What can I say?  It needed more hippies. 

So the film starts with a rerun.  We're once again treated to the opening scene of X-Men, where young Magneto discovers his powers in the Nazi concentration camp, as he tries to tear down the gates to get back to his parents.  We now pick up a few days later, where needless to say, his demonstration caught the attention of the higher-ups, and now he's being experimented on to try to unlock the secrets of his powers.  When next we meet Erik Lensher, he's out for blood, as one of those experiments involved the murder of his mother, and he won't rest until he killed the man in charge of the experiments...Sebastian Shaw.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Shaw is under investigation by the CIA.  Agent Moira McTaggert discovers one night that Shaw has superpowered beings in his employ...mutants.  In order to combat this threat, McTagget seeks out the world's leading expert on genetic mutation...Charles Xavier.  Even though he just got his Masters, he's already been considered the best.  It's an interesting introduction to the character, as when we first meet him, he's mainly using his powers to pick up the ladies in the bar. 

But Xavier has a companion...Raven Darkholme, the woman who will become Mystique.  Xavier caught her stealing food from his kitchen when they were kids, and immediately offered her room and board.  They've grown to have a brother/sister relationship, and because of how her mutation makes her look so different, Charles has grown into a very protective older brother. 

Needless to say, things come to a head as all parties eventually join forces to stop Sebastian Shaw, as he manipulates global powers to bring about the Cuban Missile Crisis and start World War III, thus allowing the mutants to rise up and take over the world. 

Having done this little marathon now, I'd say that X2 is still the best, but this ranks a close second.  Once again, all the characters have stuff to do...they've all got a role to play.  Granted, a lot of their are quickly dealt with in a training montage as Xavier helps teach them to use their powers.  But they all have their arcs.

And, beginning what we saw continue in Days of Future Past, Mystique really is a Darth Vader character, torn between the Xavier's good side and Magneto's Dark Side.  Continuing the big brother/little sister relationship she has with Xavier, she starts to resent how his power allows him to blend in with regular humans, while she's been taught to "conceal, don't feel."  Throw in a little bit of rebellion against her big brother's ways, and you can see how she finds Magneto's message of acceptance (through domination) to be more appealing than Xavier's message of tolerance.  Pop culture's current favourite manic pixie dream girl Jennifer Lawrence plays the young Mystique.  She was about a year away from becoming a superstar via The Hunger Games.  She does a good job of acting through Mystique's growing rebellion and desire for acceptance. 

But the true scene stealer is Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto.  So much rage, nothing but vengeance.  Even he's surprised when Xavier starts poking around inside his head and actually uncovers a happy memory.  It's become the trope that a person turns to villainy when the world kicks them around and now they have the power to kick back hard, but Fassbender makes Magneto's path down that road all the more believable. 

At the end of the day, though, I do have to agree with one critic's sentiments.  The ending, where after Magneto has done away with Shaw and appoints himself the new leader of the mutants bent on world domination...it almost seems tacked on.  it's like the studio said, "OK.  That's been a fun adventure and all, but make him evil already, because this is a prequel and we need to see him be evil."  It would have been nicer if they allowed Magneto's descent to the Dark Side to play out slowly over the next few films, but hey.  It's Robert Zemeckis's Big Mac culture. 

Just a couple other thoughts before I wrap this up.  Despite the bland music that dominated the franchise, I quite liked  Henry Jackman's score, especially the main theme he created for Magneto.  It's almost like the Jaws theme...so full of menace.

And Hugh Jackman's cameo as Wolverine.  To crib a line from another critic:  "The best use of the single 'fuck' you can say in a PG-13 rated movie." 

But at the end of the day, when all's said and done, it was a great way to re-energize the franchise.  I still stand by my assessment that it was the best superhero movie of 2011.

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