Walter Mencken 10:01 a.m., May 29
Review: X-Men: First Class
Reader, please bear with me for a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering – this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three-o-clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t always work…”
Given that tidbit of wisdom, I’d say three-o-clock in the morning is the perfect time to see X-Men: First Class. Because otherwise, you’re liable to notice a certain difference in the “tragic importance” of the film’s two main storylines. One is the story of a bunch of mutant teenagers struggling with the fact that they don’t fit in with “normal” people. Their “gifts” set them apart in painful, even crippling ways, and no one can say that their suffering isn’t real. The trouble is, the other story concerns Erik Lehnsherr (played with moving, handsome earnestness by Michael Fassbender), the mutant who will become the villain Magneto. Erik is a young Jewish mutant in Nazi Germany who sees his mother gunned down because he can’t make his power over magnetism work on command. Who is then taken in hand by his mother’s murderer and subjected to horrific experimentation in a concentration camp. Whose whole life thereafter is consumed by the desire for revenge.
A movie gives you a world and asks you to enter in, and it’s a fair request. There’s no point is dismissing the drama of The Breakfast Club simply because American high school kids don’t suffer the way the Jews suffered in Schindler’s List. But if one movie tries to serve up both worlds side by side, then it makes it a little bit harder to care about Molly Ringwald’s rich-girl insecurities.
X-Men: First Class seems to understand this at some level, and tries to compensate by having our teenage mutants watch one of their own get taken out by the baddies. But the whole thing is rushed, slapdash – we’ve just met the fellow, and so have they. He’s here, and then he’s gone. It’s rough, but it’s not “Mom is dead because you couldn’t move the coin.” Likewise, during the big final battle, it’s hard to get too worked up over a couple of low-grade mutants chasing each other through the air when, as Erik puts it, “Frankenstein is meeting his creator.”
Actually, “rushed” and “slapdash” were never far from my thoughts while watching X-Men: First Class. Story: “Hey, it’s Oliver Platt, working as the crucial, sympathetic link between the U.S. Government and the mutants. Hm, he’s having to wrestle with the fact that while he has the authority, the mutants have the power. Trouble brewing? No, wait, he’s dead. Along with a whole bunch of other, totally anonymous government agents. Guess he didn’t matter after all.”
Character: “Wow, young Charles Xavier sure is meant to seem wise and erudite – citing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in an effort to get young Hank McCoy to accept his beastly characteristics (urgh), telling Erik that true power comes from finding the point between rage and serenity (huh?). But how come he’s such a completely lunkheaded jerk when dealing with Mystique, a girl desperate to be thought of as beautiful despite her bumpy blue skin? Oh, right – because Mystique eventually sides with the evil mutants, and we need to find a way to get her from point A (Xavier) to point B (Magneto). I guess that’s what comes of making a prequel. You’re kind of constrained by what must come later.”
Effects: “Okay, I get that signaling telepathic communication by making the ‘voice in your head’ kind of loud and tinny is a nod to the time period in which the film is set. Special effects in the ‘60s were kind of cheesy, weren’t they? That explains the ridiculous-looking doomsday montage that Xavier picks up telepathically from the lady in the white catsuit. But damn – when that sub is crashing through those palms, the trees look straight out of World of Warcraft. And I don’t even play World of Warcraft.”
Central Message: “It doesn’t help a movie when the villain is right. Magneto keeps saying that mutants are an evolutionary advance, and that even Xavier knows how evolutionary advances result in the extinction of the species that’s been left behind. And he keeps predicting that because of this, humanity will hate the mutants and try to kill them. And he’s right every time. Xavier keeps yammering about how ‘we can be the better men,’ but he doesn’t seem to know what that means. When Erik/Magneto responds, ’We are the better men,’ the obvious answer is that ‘better’ is determined not by what you can do, but by what kind of man you are. Xavier just keeps silent.”
Why be so harsh and long-winded about a superhero movie? Because it’s an ambitious superhero movie. At one point, Xavier pleads with Erik to show mercy, saying that most of the enemy force is made up of good men who are just following orders. Erik responds that he’s suffered enough at the hands of men who are ‘just following orders,’ and that he will never forget. That’s right: he drops two of the phrases most commonly associated with the Holocaust in a movie about the plight of a mutant minority. If you’re going to go for that kind of resonance and have it come off as anything other than cheap, you’ve got to nail the execution.