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So for several months I’ve been eyeing X-Men: First Class, the latest entry in a franchise I’ve not generally liked, in hopes that this stylish-looking film – which mixes 60s spy chic, Cold War nostalgia and January Jones in a gravity-defying bustier – in hopes that the film would revive or at least agitate my interest in comic book fare.I have enjoyed reading your radio. generic propecia Discovery and roxithromycin access increases the factor of thing.
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That’s not to say that X-Men: First Class doesn’t have its moments, or that the film isn’t entertaining. A film that riffs so freely and enthusiastically off James Bond films (of the Connery vintage), 60s go-go/mod culture, The Avengers, Cold War military thrillers like Ice Station Zebra, and even Dean Martin’s cheeky Matt Helm movies can’t be all bad, right? No, it certainly can’t – and X-Men: First Class is a diverting, two-hour plus voyage back into the Kennedy era, a period in which the West seemed a bit more self-confident, stylish and cohesive than it does today.
But First Class is a voyage that carries so much baggage with it – so much 2-cent teen psychology, so many embarrassingly campy characters (Beast, Banshee, and some chick who flies around like Tinkerbell with exploding saliva), and so much equivocating about the relative moral weight of America and the Soviet Union, that I’m unable to say I really enjoyed it.
And that’s a shame. You really have to work to make me not like a film of this kind. You have to do things like: suggest that America’s military establishment (along with the Soviets’) during the Kennedy era was being manipulated by a sadistic ex-Nazi … who likes to quote lines (of the “for us or against us” variety) from George W. Bush. You have to depict the CIA and America’s military high command as bumbling and incompetent at best, corrupt and ruthlessly exploitative of innocent peoples’ lives at worst.
You also have to give Kevin Bacon a major starring role. Do we still need that in 2011? I thought the 1980s had taught us better.
X-Men: First Class is the fifth film to mine the seemingly inexhaustible lore of the original X-Men comic book series, and it’s a film that has taken the unusual step of going all the way back to the series’ origins in the early 1960s – bravely eschewing Hollywood’s fear of losing teen audiences in period detail. It’s so easy to imagine the Fox executives to whom this film was pitched nervously asking, “Will teenagers know who the hell Kennedy was? Will we have to explain to them who the Soviets were, and why they were the bad guys? Does anybody still remember that Nazis fled to Argentina?” We tend to forget that the younger generation nowadays isn’t taught any of this stuff, and so can’t be counted on to have the same emotional response to the sight of, say, a May Day military parade in Moscow. For this reason, I applaud the makers of this film – and Brit director Matthew Vaughn, in particular – for having the ‘courage,’ if that’s the right term, to ignore conventional wisdom and trust that the glamour and romance of early 60s Cold War culture would shine through. It did.
Indeed, if you want to know what First Class is really ‘about,’ I could tell you that it’s about the tangled origins of the rivalry – begun as all good rivalries do, in bonds of friendship – between Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and their respective groups, the ‘X-Men’ and the ‘Brotherhood of Mutants’. It is a rivalry the film clearly implies has echoes in the Cold War rivalry between America and the Soviet Union, a rivalry of equals in terms of power – if not necessarily in moral authority. More on that below.
But you would be misled to think that First Class has anything really serious or noteworthy to say about the Cold War, which is reduced here to little more than a glamorous backdrop. If First Class is really ‘about’ anything, it’s really about the narcissism of its central characters – a narcissism entwined in the basic DNA of the comic book genre (“Look at me in my cool outfit, with my special powers!”), and which this particular era of the early 1960s enables magnificently. The ‘purpose’ of First Class, to the extent the film has any, is really to put fabulous looking (and even sounding) people like Michael Fassbender and January Jones in fabulous outfits – and let them strut through fabulous sets that blend influences as diverse as Ken Adam and Shag.
Of course, I have no doubt the filmmakers intended, with stout earnestness, to imbue this film with something more than that: specifically, motifs of the Civil Rights era – and even of The Holocaust – whereby the rights of individuals deemed ‘different’ by society are respected. You see, the genetic ‘mutants’ of the X-Men series, as we’re told over and over in every X-Men film, really just want to be left in peace – but those dastardly Nazis, Communists and the CIA just won’t let them alone! In the universe of the X-Men films, humanity has just two basic reactions to the mutants’ presence in the world: either to exploit the hell out of them, or to kill them. Apparently no other options are ever on the table – which is actually tough to believe, when you consider how good looking these mutants always are. I mean, is your first reaction on seeing someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Zoë Kravitz to persecute her? Not to mention Rebecca Romijn (who makes a brief cameo in this film)? That really seems like quite a stretch. There must be a Vogue cover one of these ladies could appear on.
X-Men: First Class isn’t having any of it, though – remaining grimly unwavering, five films in, to its hoary narrative of victimization. The film charts the parallel development of two major X-Men characters – Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr – both of whom, ultimately, are to learn hard lessons about humanity’s intolerance toward their genetically mutated kind. Xavier, played by the ingratiating young actor James McAvoy, has as his mission the integration of the mutants into productive society – and, specifically, assisting the CIA in tracking down genuinely dangerous mutants, such as the murderous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Erik Lehnsherr’s (Michael Fassbender) personal mission is oriented toward revenge, however. Lehnsherr is out to kill Sebastian Shaw, due to a horrible crime committed while Lehnsherr was a young prisoner in a German concentration camp. The first act of First Class follows these two characters as Xavier establishes a nattly little life for himself as an Oxford academic, while Lehnsherr jets around the world – very much James Bond style – exacting sweet revenge on fleeing Nazis.
McAvoy and Fassbender are easily First Class’ top assets. McAvoy’s warmth and intelligence, his basic humanity, form the moral center of the film. His urge to integrate the mutants into mainstream society feels noble and right; it’s the harder, slower road he advises to his friend (and eventual nemesis) Erik, and McAvoy sells it with humor and dignity.
Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, has the more glamorous role as the angry, rebellious Erik – and First Class will clearly be Fassbender’s breakout moment as an actor. He reminds me a great deal of a young Timothy Dalton – handsome, dignified, intelligent … and vaguely menacing. A brooder. As I watched him carry out his spy routine throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think that Daniel Craig had better not make a single false step over the next several years … because Fassbender could easily step into the role of Bond, right now, without any difficulty. He already seems more dashing and urbane than Craig, more classically handsome, and unlike Craig he appears to have a sense of humor.
As far as the women in First Class, I must confess to being disappointed by Jennifer Lawrence. She actually looks a little too young, too green to be starring in a movie like this. Even cast as a vapid teenager – presumably not too much of a stretch – she looked nervous and unprepared, and slightly on the zaftig side. As for January Jones, she actually looked like she was in pain in her costumes; it was noticeable how her acting picked up whenever she was seated, or didn’t need to move. I have the impression she left a more interesting performance as Emma Frost somewhere back at the gym; even still, she’s a major glamor ornament to the film. My recommendation would be to allow her to eat next time, and let her wear a mu-mu.
As far as the rest of the cast, nobody else really made an impression … except for Kevin Bacon. Kevin Bacon always makes an ‘impression’; the question is what kind. My opinion is that he’s miscast here. Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw in full ham mode; what should’ve been an Ernst Blofeld-style villain instead comes across too much like Bobby Darin. It didn’t work.
Otherwise, it’s really enjoyable to watch Fassbender float in and out of scenes in snappy turtlenecks and leather jackets, and girls running around in short skirts and go-go boots. Sebastian Shaw’s mod submarine – filched, I suspect, from Our Man Flint – was cool, as was the SR-71 Blackbird, a stylish piece of Cold War hardware last glamorized in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The sexy, 007-style fetishism of weapons and Cold War lifestyle objects really works.
But this film has big problems associated with the moral equivalency it implies between America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the film’s somewhat creepy exploitation of the Holocaust as a plot device. How shall I put this? I dislike it when Jews are brought on-screen as 2-dimensional props simply to be slaughtered for ‘dramatic effect‘ in some studio’s summer tentpole movie. First Class features an early moment of violence against a Jew in a Polish camp that feels far too cheap and manipulative for its own good; and I had the uncomfortable feeling that in some parts of the world this moment might actually be cheered. I’d rather that the moment simply not appear in the film in the first place. It’s too ugly and out of place for a movie that also features a stripper who sprouts pixie wings.
And not that they’ll care, but as someone who actually visited the Soviet Union as a teenager, and whose father served in our Cold War nuclear submarine service, and who is personally close to someone who worked in the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War (and who even operated on Brezhnev), I’d like to politely inform Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer and the other people behind X-Men: First Class that America and the Soviet Union were very definitely not ‘the same’ in their respective attitudes toward individual freedom or dignity, or toward the toleration of racial or ideological ‘difference.’ Indeed, it’s actually rather perverse – not to mention intellectually laughable – to even imply that. You can’t possibly be that cynical – or poorly educated – correct?
X-Men: First Class is uncomfortably casual in its moral equivalency, basically lumping both Cold War superpowers together as equally unfriendly to hot-looking, narcissistic teenagers. That seems to be the film’s big, thematic takeaway. I’m a teenager, I’m blue – or red, or I’m part shellfish – and I just can’t catch a break from all these stuffy old white guys on either side of the Berlin Wall. This is the indescribably puerile view of history presented by X-Men: First Class. It’s all a little troubling, frankly, because it makes me wonder if this is what the filmmakers actually think the Cold War was – just another episode in teen victimization.
I wouldn’t really care, except that X-Men: First Class takes enough cheap political jabs and swipes – the Sebastian Shaw “for us or against us” quip really stands out – that it’s obvious the filmmakers are itching to have their ideas taken seriously. Unfortunately they haven’t earned that. Their film is too frivolous, too consumed with Jennifer Lawrence’s hormonal fluctuations – or The Beast’s furry sideburns, or Banshee’s supersonic shrieking – to really convince me to take the film’s view of history seriously. This is another way of saying that the filmmakers seem embarrassingly oblivious to the difference between camp and serious cinema, treating the Cuban Missile crisis as a mere backdrop for teen soap opera.
So my advice is to feel free to see X-Men: First Class, but treat it as what is – a flashy, retro-style statement, kind of like visiting a Richard Neutra house – but not as an actual depiction of what the Cold War era was like.
Or you can just skit it altogether and rent Goldfinger.
Posted on June 3rd, 2011 at 10:39pm.