Wednesday, June 8, 2011

XY Men

*  *  *  (out of 5)  X-Men: First Class.  Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, et al.

Granted, this column hasn’t been too kind to summer superhero flicks. To see a muddled contraption of a movie like Thor as somehow “pretty good” is, to this critic’s mind, to reveal stunningly low expectations. Buried as we are in an avalanche of Batmans and Supermans and Watchmen and Fantastics and Spidermen and Iron Men and, soon, Green Lanterns and Captain Americas, it’s fair to wonder—just how much spandex induces oxygen starvation to the brain, anyway?
            Of all the franchises based on Marvel or DC Comics, the X-Men series has been the least bad and occasionally even good (X2: X-Men United). Even the least of the series, such as 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine or 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, was partly redeemed by performances by Hugh Jackman—a guy who is, to his credit, never less than “all in” no matter how preposterous the material.

            Jackman doesn’t star in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, but it still belongs on the positive side of the ledger. True, this is another soufflĂ© with way too many cooks in the kitchen (there are, count ‘em, six screenwriting and story credits here). It’s also another cynical attempt to sidestep sequel-fatigue by producing an “origin story” of several of the series’ signature characters. And once again, the series’ theme—that Thou Shalt Celebrate Difference Instead of Fearing It—is wielded with all shoulder-tapping earnestness of the most preachy of episodes from Star Trek: Generations. Yes, yes—nobody who is different, whether purple, gilled, webbed, or (and get set for the message here, folks…) gay, Jewish, colored, or “differently abled”, deserves anybody’s scorn. We get it. Can we get back to resenting perfectly ambulatory people using handicapped spaces at the mall now?

            I still liked First Class because the cast is first class, and because the screenplay by Ashley Miller, et al. gives them scope to show their strengths. We get Michael Fassbender (who did a memorable turn as a British spy in Inglorious Basterds) as the young, svelte Magneto, the mutant who can move any metallic object with his brainwaves. He’s more James Bond here than caped crusader, swimming onto the yachts of his nemeses and peeling off his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo. He even looks good in a turtleneck. We also get James McAvoy as an early-days “Dr. X”, the telepath who later becomes Patrick Stewart in the prequels to this origin story (or is that the sequels to this prequel…?). McAvoy is essentially playing the Yoda figure, helping the other X-persons learn to control their individual super-powers. In fact, playing the nurturer and the take-charge executive type is not an easy combination, but McAvoy pulls it off.

            This Bondish Magneto connection is not the only blast from the suddenly uber-sexy early sixties. With its highly revisionist version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the script is deliberately styled to capitalize on Mad Men chic. In addition to the Dr. Strangelove-inspired Cold War jitters and short skirts, we get Mad Men’s own January Jones as a mutant with telepathic powers and the strange, seemingly random ability to crystallize herself into something typically seen hanging from a chandelier. While I like her on the small screen, it’s hard to escape the suspicion somebody here is making fun of Jones’ rather precious, brittle appeal. Sure, she plays a telepath in this movie, but was she in on the joke?
            Something similar might be asked of Kevin Bacon, who plays the villain cruising the globe in a groovy, shag-lined submarine that seems more Austin Powers than superpowers.  Alas, it’s none too clear what Bacon’s exact talent is—something to do “absorbing energy”, or maybe the facility with accents to transition from ruthless Nazi apparatchik to ruthless arms contractor with a drawl. (Wouldn’t you think his superpower would lie in being only six degrees of separation from any given individual on the planet?)
He, likewise, gets into the Mad Men groove when, at a key moment in scheming with his gal pal Jones, he tells her that his drink “needs ice”.

            As comparatively painless as the X-Men films are, I can’t help wondering if it’s helping to  raise a whole generation of evolutionary illiterates. No, Virginia, the vast majority of genetic mutations are not good things. Most are either neutral or harmful. Even a really cool-sounding mutation, like a working pair of wings, would actually be bad if it meant the mutant would be more likely to die in a flying accident before he could pass on his gift.

            But of course, a mutation with truly Darwinian implications—like a guy with hyper-potent super-testicles who can outbreed everybody else, or extra wide female hips for safe birthing—don’t necessarily lend themselves to spandex treatment. Maybe the most biologically plausible mutant isn’t January Jones, but some even more fecund version of the Christina Hendricks. XXX-Men, anyone?

© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro