Saturday, February 15, 2014

X-men: First Class review

    In anticipation of X-men: Days of Future Past, I thought I'd do a review of some of the previous entries in the series. One of the movies I have the most mixed feelings regarding is X-men: First Class. Produced by Bryan Singer and direted by Mathew Vaughn, it is the favorite movie of numerous X-men fans I know. On my end, I judge it to be the third best movie in the series after X-men and X-men 2. That, however, is damning with faint praise as the series dramatically declined with X-men: The Last Stand.

    Part of my general dislike of the film is the thing feels so damned gimmicky. It's like someone said, "You know what would be awesome? Let's combine X-men with Mad Men and see if that can get us out of the current rut we have with the series." The fact the movie works as well as it does given the X-men's traditional associations with Civil Rights, Magneto being perfectly positioned age-wise to be full of righteous anger but not completely set in his ways, and the fact the X-men were created in the 1960s anyway should allay this complaint.

    But it doesn't.

I love the return of the yellow uniforms. That was my favorite bit of fanservice.
    The movie is superficially aware of the Civil Rights era but prefers to pay superficial attention to it versus indulging the rampant chauvinism of the period. Part of the reason I never liked Mad Men was the show didn't condemn the nastier undercurrent of its setting but mourned it, singing about how it was awesome to be a privileged white male in the Sixties. I get the same feeling from X-men: First Class where the only mutants who prosper are, guess what, the privileged white male ones.

    The premise of X-men: First Class is that it's the 1960s and the world is very different. The Soviets are on the brink of nuclear war with the Americans, women are treated as objects, and the government is filled with ineffectual oversexed douchebags. Okay, things are sort-of different. Charles Xavier is the Old Money boy genius who dreams of a better world from his Ivory Tower while Eric Lensherr is a Holocaust survivor who dreams of revenge against the Nazi scientist who killed his mother.

The bromance between Magneto and Xavier is, as always, the best part of the X-films.
    James McAvoy's Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender's Magneto are the only reason this movie works as well as it does. Well, almost the only reason, Kevin Bacon's Mister Sinister/Sebastian Shaw hybrid is a treat and easily amongst the best villains in the franchise. I can also never say anything bad about Jennifer Lawrence. Hollywood It Girl or not, she's never anything but entertaining and the only person who could have made femme fatale Mystique adorable.

    The problem is I'm not sure what the movie's message is and if there is one, whether the creators care about it or not. It's seemingly on the side of Magneto for most of the film but the movie draws an explicit parallel between him and Sebastian Shaw (who is a Nazi). Charles Xavier is shown to be idealistic and a good man but ultimately ineffectual.

    Even if the movie is trying to show both men as flawed, it does a poor job of saying what it thinks. Stuff happens in the movie and that's about the height of the movie's opinion, which is sad because the Civil Rights Era and the X-men have both had a very firm opinion about acceptance.

    I.e. it's a good thing.

The movie's treatment of women is period appropriate--which isn't exactly a good thing.
    The sexism in the movie is off-putting too. The villains in the film are the Hellfire Club so some element of sex was to be expected (after all, its female members dress in lingerie) but the attitude of the film is dismissive to its female characters. Rose Byrne's Moira McTaggert is an almost an afterthought to the film while Zoe Kravitz's Angel goes from sympathetic to vile in two beats. Even Mystique is questionable as her growth as a person is symbolized by her trading one older male parent/lover figure for another.

    In conclusion, I think X-men: First Class is very entertaining. The acting is wonderful, the action is delightful, and it occasionally stumbles across something profound. Unfortunately, the movie's lack of desire to take a firm stance on the struggle for acceptance sours the whole thing for me. I'm also uncomfortable with the treatment of women in the film, which seems to be all about the (male) fanservice in a rather degrading manner. Still, it's worth a watch.

    Unlike X-men: The Last Stand.


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