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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Rather than going to the well for another X-Men sequel Hugh Jackman’s mutant Wolverine has been spun off into an uneven prequel that tries to explain the character’s origins but somehow misses what we liked about him in the first place. X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens with a flashback to 150 years ago which unveils the relationship between Logan and Victor mutant half-brothers who are forced to run away from home after Logan murders their biological father. After several scenes depicting the brothers’ service in various wars the story settles in around the 1970s where both Victor and Logan are recruited by the devious William Stryker to serve in a mutant army. But Logan spurns Stryker after taking part in a massacre in East Africa and chooses instead to settle down with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox in the Canadian Rockies. Six years later Victor now Sabretooth shows up and kills her. Logan now Wolverine seeks revenge reluctantly making a deal with Stryker in order to become indestructible. Unfortunately he is double-crossed and uncovers a Stryker/Sabretooth plot to kidnap mutants and use them for no good. He escapes and the chase is on as he tries to stop them — and anyone else in his way — before his memory is erased.
WHO’S IN IT?
It’s the buffed-up Jackman’s show all the way as Wolverine graduates to star status — and that’s exactly the problem. It turns out a little of this guy goes a long way especially when he’s presented in as humorless and unimaginative a manner as the deadly serious approach taken by Hugh (who also co-produced). Jackman acquits himself nicely in the numerous action scenes but fails to make a lasting human connection for Wolverine and the audience. Liev Schreiber is good as Sabretooth but plays it mostly on one note. His three fight scenes opposite Jackman are well-choreographed but become tiring. Danny Huston makes a fine heavy as the evil Stryker while Lynn Collins is lovely as Silverfox adding a nice touch of emotion to this mostly stoic CGI-fest. A promising new group of mutants are also introduced but unfortunately aren't given much to do. Standouts are Ryan Reynolds as the smart-talking Wade Wilson aka Deadpool; rapper will.i.am as John Wraith; and Kevin Durand as the humungous Fred J. Dukes aka The Blob. Durand is especially impressive in a boxing gym scene. Conversely Lost’s Dominic Monaghan receives too little screen time in the role of Bradley.
Wolverine’s CGI effects are predictably top-notch and a couple of big action set pieces are visually arresting including a motorcycle/helicopter chase that may lack credibility but is at least fun to watch.
Lighten up Wolvie. Jackman and everyone else seem to be taking this stuff way too seriously. The humanity that was a hallmark of the previous X-Men films also is largely AWOL and the picture takes a long time to get going. We’re at the 40-minute mark before the claws really start to come out and the psychological mumbo-jumbo stops.
In the lab Stryker promises to make a revenge-seeking Wolverine indestructible but his double-crossing antics only serve to unleash severe rage inspiring great balls of mutant fury as the furious mutant makes his great escape — sans clothing.
WHY YOU SHOULD SIT THROUGH SEVEN MINUTES OF END CREDITS?
For those who think the movie effectively ends when the credits roll here is a “heads up” to hang around.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Since reportedly about 100 000 people downloaded a rough cut when Wolverine was illegally pirated a few weeks ago why not help out poor 20th Century Fox and see it the legal way on the big screen? It’s a big improvement over your iMac.