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.
Scooby and the gang at Mystery Inc.--Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard)--are at the top of their game and just about everyone in Coolsville loves them. Even the Coolsonian Museum is honoring them with an exhibit--a costumed display of Mystery Inc.'s former foes such as The Pterodactyl Ghost The Black Knight Ghost and The 10 000 Volt Ghost. Yet at the museum's gala opening the team's stellar reputation is put in serious jeopardy when said monsters come alive re-created by a masked villain who vows to bring Mystery Inc. down. Under pressure from relentless reporter Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone) the gang launches an investigation into the monster outbreak but as the mystery deepens Mystery Inc.'s members end up questioning their roles within the organization. Can macho leader Fred and image-conscious Daphne look past the superficial and find the identity of the Evil Masked Figure? Will brainy Velma let her feelings for Coolsonian Museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green) blossom even though he is a key suspect? And finally can Shaggy and Scooby stop cowering--and eating--long enough to prove they can be detectives? These are tough times for the gang but they've got to pull it together so they can solve the mystery and save the day.
Even though it seems a little ridiculous that Scooby-Doo 2's fleshed-out cartoon characters would try to dig deep to find answers within the returning actors continue to have fun exploring their alter-Scooby-egos. Prinze's Fred has a hipper haircut this time (the original matted blond 'do had to go) and isn't quite the braggart he once was. He is still unquestionably the "face" of the group until he is made to look foolish by the ruthless Heather played with relish by Silverstone who shines in the bad-girl role. Gellar has definitely dropped Daphne's "damsel-in-distress" routine getting all Buffy on the monsters but is still worried that its her looks not her skills that get her attention. Cardellini's Velma on the other hand gets a love interest--and even all dolled up at one point--but can't get rid of her inherent geekiness. It's Shaggy and Scooby who experience the biggest revelation realizing they really are nothing but giant screw-ups. Lillard actually turns in some (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) poignant moments as Shag grapples with his inequities. They all realize in the end though that for the good of Mystery Inc. it's best to be true to yourself. Thank god.
Director Raja Gosnell goes full throttle in his second Scooby effort with more action and more elaborate theme-parky sets than the original. Even as the characters pause to reflect on their faults these moments are thankfully short-lived before the gang is thrust into another wild chase or fight sequence keeping the kiddies' minds occupied--and allowing the adult fans to laugh at all the monsters they remember from the TV show. One of the criticisms from the first Scooby-Doo was that it didn't provide enough "inside" jokes for the grown-up enthusiasts (and face it there are probably more of them than kids). But Scooby-Doo 2 harkens back to the good old days and even pokes fun at all those criminals whose evil plans and ghost disguises were foiled by the meddlesome quintet. They all gather at their own watering hole called the Faux Ghost where they can throw darts at pictures of the Mystery Inc. gang. Funny stuff. Overall the sequel provides the same madcap fun the original did without requiring the use of too much brainpower.