X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
If you had told the 10-year-old me that Hollywood would one day release a series of big-budgeted, serious-minded films based on the X-Men comic books, he probably would've done cartwheels for about a week. And if you told that same mini-me that he'd one day grow almost completely apathetic toward this film series, he probably would've laughed in your face.
Yet with director Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, the fifth installment in the franchise inspired by the Marvel Comics characters, that's exactly the unhappy position I find myself in. There's really very little that's wrong with the movie; this origin saga, detailing how the super-mutants joined forces and eventually formed warring factions, has been skillfully assembled with a cast of mostly first-rate actors, and there's enormous wit in the production design and visuals, if not necessarily the dialogue. First Class works, oftentimes quite effectively, as an effects-laden summertime blockbuster, and as that appears to be the film's only goal, more power to it, I guess. But unlike at the first three cinematic X-Mens, and outside the splendid efforts of Michael Fassbender (playing the younger version of Ian McKellen's Magneto), I didn't feel much for this follow-up/prequel/reboot/whatever, and I'm not convinced that Vaughn or his three co-writers did, either.
You get a sense of the movie's technical proficiency, its thematic weightiness, and, strangely enough, its emotional neutrality in First Class' first few minutes. I say "strangely enough" because the new film's prelude is an almost exact reenactment of the opening to director Bryan Singer's original X-Men, in which the distraught teen-who-will-become-Magneto, imprisoned in a Nazi camp, uses his metal-controlling powers to bend the steel gate separating him from his parents. In Singer's franchise-starter, this wrenching sequence prepared you for X-Men's gravitas - which, in itself, was unusual for the post-Batman & Robin, pre-Spider-Man year of 2000 - while also establishing Magneto as an empathetic über-villain. (It's borderline-impossible, after all, to root against a Holocaust survivor.) And with First Class continuing this 1944 flashback with the repercussions of young Magneto's destructive act, beginning with the teen's tête-à-tête with a Nazi sympathizer (an accented Kevin Bacon), there's every indication that Vaughn and company are planning to continue in Singer's direction, and explore mutant anguish with similar emotional depth.
Well, they do and they don't. Bacon's bad guy - referred to as "Dr. Schmidt" in the 1944 flashback and "Sebastian Shaw" in the film's 1962 setting - may be malevolent, but he's merely comic-book malevolent; Bacon appears to be having such fun playing this sneering stereotype that, amusing though he is, nothing he does or says carries much weight. And even when teen Magneto's mother is brought into the picture, held at gunpoint while the young man is ordered to display his powers, you don't feel the full horror of the scenario. Vaughn directs so that you're not interested in the woman's fate so much as Magneto's inevitable, effects-heavy revenge, and as the film goes on, First Class' helmer continues to sacrifice potentially fascinating narrative and character dynamics in this manner - much the way Vaughn ignored psychological ambiguity in favor of violent, jokey spectacle in last year's Kick-Ass.
While this may be just what many fans are looking for in their X-entertainment, it leaves some of us wanting more, which is perhaps an unreasonable request considering all that the movie does give us. There are sensational visual flourishes (particularly Magneto's forcible removal of a metal filling) and throwaway jokes (Hugh Jackman's five-second cameo is perfection), and a few gratifyingly nasty executions; the villainous Azazel's habit of teleporting captives heavenward and then dropping them is a satisfying gut-tightener. Although Jennifer Lawrence, portraying the teen shape-shifter Mystique, looks as lost as Halle Berry did in Singer's original X-Men, a number of other figures - James McAvoy's Charles Xavier, Nicholas Hoult's Beast, Caleb Landry Jones' Banshee - are actively present and enjoyable to watch. The extended climax, with its clever appropriation of the era's Cuban missile face-off, delivers some exceptional large-scale effects and an unexpected amount of legitimate emotion. And just about everything Fassbender does is marvelous; with his feverish concentration and no-bullshit demeanor, the actor is as essential here - and feels as revelatory - as Jackman was in 2000.
I frequently had a fine time at X-Men: First Class, and I'd hardly shoo audiences away from it. But still, I think I'd trade the experience as a whole for even one scene as wrenching as Angel's tortured removal of his wings with scissors and a cheese grater, or one narrative detour as shocking as Cyclops' early death ... and those are examples from the Brett Ratner-directed The Last Stand, the least of the first three X-Men movies. (I think we can all agree to ignore 2009's inept X-Men Origins: Wolverine, yes?) As befits the film's period, Mad Men's January Jones shows up as a jumpsuit-clad vixen named Emma Frost, and the movie itself turns out to be quite like her: great-looking yet distractingly remote, and chilly even when hot.