Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.