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.
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.