Wednesday, August 31, 2011

X-Men:First Clash

Mutants are starting to reveal themselves in 1960s America, with the intention of starting a nuclear war with Russia. A band of good natured mutants are the world’s only hope. Shoes. Hundreds of them, old and battered, were piled on top of one another like the corpses in a mass grave to whom they probably once belonged. It’s part of the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, which I visited before going to watch X-Men: First Class. Describing it to friends, I had gotten the name mixed up with a part of the Great War rooms in the museum’s basement level, the Trench Experience. “Really? They have a Holocaust Experience?” they remarked in confusion. ‘Exhibition’ sounds respectful; ‘Experience’ conjures up a touristy exploitation. And so it often is with cinema’s treatment of historical events.  

X-Men: First Class uses many. The film opens, as does Bryan Singer’s original X-Men, on Erik Lehnsherr, a young Magneto. It’s the exact same footage of the boy being separated from his mother. She is dragged, screaming, through the gates of a concentration camp. A struggling guard holds Erik back. Another rushes over to assist. Both their feet slide back in the mud as an unseen force pulls Erik towards the metallic gates. A couple more rush over to restrain him. The gates start to bend and twist, distorted by Erik’s pain. A guard knocks him out with the butt of his gun and they collapse to the ground before the misshapen iron gates. Erik is a mutant with the power to manipulate metals.

Not a shot for shot remake, but the exact same footage. It’s a nice reference to Singer’s original, just as Singer used Brando’s voiceover in Superman Returns, but it does leave a slightly bitter taste. The first Superman was made almost 30 years before Singer’s, whereas that first X-Men was barely a decade ago. It’s an awkward reminder of how quickly franchises are rebooted these days, as though Hollywood ran out of the little patience it once had.

And then we get to the new stuff. Erik is brought to Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), a researcher working for the Nazis. Intrigued by Erik’s talents, he forces him to perform them again. But only anger seems to make them work. So Dr. Schmidt makes Erik angry. Dr. Schmidt likes Erik when he’s angry. The scene contributes an important aspect to the pre-Magneto Erik. Anger is psychologically woven with his power in Erik’s head. It’s something he must conquer to unleash his full potential.

Later, and now in the 60s, Dr. Schmidt is revealed as Sebastian Shaw, the film’s chief antagonist. He has a band of mutants aiming to replace us human folk. They’ve evolved beyond us, and we’re now obsolete. Shaw intends to engineer a nuclear war between Russia and the United States (read: Cuban Missile Crisis) through political manipulation (he counts the psychic Emma Frost amongst his team, who could use her cleavage alone to persuade most of the male characters). His argument is compelling and provides insight into the rise of the √úbermensch: it is the sudden invention and implementation of the atomic bomb that has sparked a new stage in human evolution. In Shaw’s mind it is the nuclear age that has created him and his mutant-kind. It will also be the downfall of their Homo sapiens predecessors.

Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), a FBI agent, uncovers this plot and forms a team of well-intentioned mutants, lead by the non-wheel-chair-bound, full-head-of-haired Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the aforementioned Erik (now played adult-style by Michal Fassbender). Xavier is a big shot from Oxford University, and a little intellectually arrogant. McAvoy plays Xavier with a youthful cockiness, which sometimes comes across a little too smug, but he effectively conveys the character’s optimism for humanity and ability as a teacher.

It is this second trait that makes for the film’s best scenes. The most enjoyable part of any first superhero movie (as I wrote about Green Lantern) is watching the characters discover and hone their skills. First Class does so expertly in a long montage charting their progress. Mathew Vaugh injects similar comic book aesthetics that he used in Kick-Ass. If only more ‘superhero’ films could be a bit more ‘comic book’.

The ‘comic book’ style is not limited to this one scene. Apart from the opening scene, the entire film has a hyperised array of primary colours. The clothes they wear, which are of a 60s fashion, help the characters look more cartoony than realistic. All this colour comes to fruition in the film’s climactic battle sequence. Our two teams of mutants, evil and good, fight each other off the coast of Cuba on a US naval blockade preventing the nuclear weapon carrying Soviet ships from reaching their shores. A few mutants have defected to the opposite teams already. We all know one will by the film’s end.

The sea is almost turquoise-blue, the palm trees a bold green and the mutants are dressed in classic blue and yellow. The colours are bright and primary, whereas the emotional conflicts and drama being played out occupy various, darkened shades. It’s the contrast that makes comic book such affecting entertainment; that this world of muscled superheros and over-the-top villains can become deadly serious and poignant in the turn of a page. It helps the special effects too. CGI explosions and planes look more realistic amongst non-realistic surroundings. There’s no reference point for your eye to compare it against. As everything is so hyper-colourful, such effects are more believable than anything in Avatar or Transformers.

And so is the spirit of X-Men: First Class. Mostly because of Vaughn’s visual direction, it has stayed close to its source medium. Fine acting and an exciting script contribute to the enjoyment. It feels a little rushed, but the film was made in an incredibly short space of time for what it is. If only there wasn’t the odd aftertaste. Cinema should definitely address such important historical events, but when it is so unashamedly portrayed as entertainment you can’t help feel a tinge of guilt.

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