Did I mention that I went to see X-Men: First Class last week? Odd. That sounds like the sort of thing I would have mentioned by now. Well, anyway, I had a period stuck between contracts last week which, long story short, meant I basically had a week off work. What do you do with all that time? Fortunately, Hurricane Jack had a solution: round up all the unemployed, student-types and late shift workers we could get our hands on, hot-foot it over to Kingston and catch an early viewing of a silly film.
The silly film we decided to see was, as you’ve probably gathered from the first sentence of this entry, X-Men: First Class. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s a prequel to the X-Men film franchise set in the early 1960s, examining the early years of Professor X, Magneto, Beast, Mystique and a bunch of X-Men who weren’t in the other films. Still no sign of Dazzler, though.
Comic book movies are always a fine line to tread. Superhero comics are attractive properties – they have lots of wham-bam action, good-looking characters, opportunities for spectacular special effects and as for publicity, well – just let it leak that you’re making a movie based on Green Arrow or Swamp Thing and watch the Internet light up.
Of course, it is possible to screw things up very badly, usually when some director decides that they’re going to ignore everything that made the original character so popular and do their own thing, because they know better. The result tends to be a flop akin to Judge Dredd or (O Christ) Catwoman. Here’s a hint – when you can’t sell Halle Berry in a leather bikini to teenage boys, you are a bad director.
I’m not saying you can’t make changes to the source material – Christopher Nolan’s Batman films take major liberties with the character and his universe, but he also keeps the substantial essence of what makes Batman so enduring. The Dark Knight is not only possibly the best superhero film ever made, but one of the greatest action films of all time.
On the other hand, if you keep things too loyal, you run the risk of encountering what I call “Otto Octavius syndrome.” The thing with a lot of these characters is that they were created in the 1940s or the 1960s, when you could be a little bit campier and a bit sillier. As a result, when you try to adapt them to the modern era and a different medium, you have to try to make that silliness work. So you have to, for instance, add a bit in Spider-Man 2 where a character has to observe, concerning Dr Octopus’ real identity, “Guy named Otto Octavius ends up with eight arms – what are the odds?”
The X-Men franchise has, generally, done pretty well so far. The first two films kept pretty well to the premise of the original comic, which I was surprised to learn had nothing to do with gender reassignment surgery (I made the same mistake with Transmetropolitan). They had all the requisite action and spectacle, but were also intelligent enough to make it acceptable for snobs to watch thanks to their top-notch cast and parallels with the civil and gay rights movements. I liked the scene in the second movie where Iceman “comes out.”
Anyway, then the third movie came out, and that was… less good. Then Wolverine: Origins was released, and I’ve not seen that. I’m told it’s shite, but I’m not going to judge it until I’ve actually seen it. What I do know is that there’s no way Hugh Jackman could have topped his performance in the National’s production of Oklahoma!, which was absolutely superb.
Hurricane Jack assured me that First Class would be nothing like Wolverine, so along we went. My overall verdict was that it wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t a superb movie either. I don’t regret losing the money I paid for it (well, due to a screw-up at the cinema we got in for free, but I wouldn’t regret losing the theoretical money I would have paid for it).
I did like the 1960s setting and the allusions to the culture of that era, so that was good. And there were some excellent performances – I particularly liked James McAvoy’s starring role as Professor X. Patrick Stewart is a hard act to follow, but McAvoy’s portrayal of the character felt convincingly like a younger version without being a slavish imitation.
There were faults, to be sure. Some of the dialogue was embarrassingly clunky (“Would you cover up a tiger?”) and the script tried to cram way too much into the runtime – I know the prequel is supposed to set things up for the original film, but does it have to explain everything? And there was some stuff that was just plain silly. I know Hank McCoy (or Beast, as he’s better known) is supposed to be a genius, but for God’s sake he’s in his early twenties and demonstrates expertise in medicine, aerospace engineering, genetics, chemistry and tailoring. Even I can’t do all that. Or any of it.
From a nerd perspective, there’s the problem of superhero movie diminishing returns – to keep the franchise exciting and appealing, you have to make use of the best characters early on. That shouldn’t be a problem with X-Men, where there are about twelve million characters anyway. Unfortunately, after four films later they’ve used up most of the good ones and so we’re left with characters like Havok (who can fire destructive hula-hoops) and Angel Salvadore (who has insect wings, vomit corrosive chemicals and, presumably, not find her way out of an open window). In the next movie, we’ll be down to Skin and Maggott. Yes, those characters are every bit as awesome as their names make them sound.
Basically, it’s a pleasing way to spend a couple of hours, but if you didn’t like X-Men already, this probably won’t be the movie to convert you. Still, at least it’s better than bloody Catwoman.