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Friday, June 10, 2011
'X-Men: First Class'
Mutants return to their roots in decent 'X-Men' prequel
By KAORI SHOJI
After watching a movie such as "X-Men: First Class," you really don't want to sit down at some steel gray desk and write about it. Turning aerial somersaults while telepathically transmitting brilliant sentences into your laptop sounds more the thing to do.
"X-Men: First Class" (released in Japan as "X-Men: First Generation") is an action film that recalls the nail-biting urgency felt by 12-year-olds everywhere of wanting to become a superhero right here, right now, endowed with mind-blowing super powers and a deep wisdom that could never be acquired with a gym membership. You don't want chiseled biceps or sleek thighs, you want to go back to the beginning and be born this way so that you can save the world from a nuclear crisis. Heck yes.
"X-Men: First Class" is a prequel to the famed Hollywood franchise. It's a brilliant and much-needed intravenous vitamin shot the size of a fire hydrant. Remember the "Star Trek" reboot two years back that featured fresh young faces playing the original (and now aged) characters, set at a time when they were whippersnapper space cadets? Apparently that worked so well that prequels may eventually replace sequels as a next-generation marketing device. There's already talk about giving "Pirates of the Caribbean" a similar treatment.
In any case, the "X-Men" series (based on the long-running sci-fi thriller Marvel comics), now in its fifth cinematic incarnation, has had its ups and downs. Even some die-hard loyalists balked at "X-Men: The Last Stand" in 2006, and 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" spinoff took a nosedive at the box office. But "First Class" lives up to its title — and though it slips in certain places (playing young mutants Mystique and Beast, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult pout as though they've come off the Hogwarts set), it can all be put down to youthful over-enthusiasm and indiscretion. On the other hand, the sequels get no slack cuts.
Everyone assumes a sequel should be more than whatever came before it, but with a prequel, less is more beautiful. Less clutter in the story line, fewer unnecessary complications, and decidely less makeup to freshen up a gradually aging cast.
This is also a chance for "X-Men" newbies to familiarize themselves with the franchise icons, grasp the modus operandi and "ooh" and "aah" over mutants mutating. "X-Men" had always boasted extremely stylized visuals that ran both hot and cool; though ensconced in the action genre, it didn't care so much for muscle as brains, ambience and great clothes. That inflated sense of artiness is prevalent in "First Class" — but to director Matthew Vaughn's credit, the film is fashionable without being snide. The sensation is more gallery than runway, and many of the frames are worth a second viewing, just to savor the visual details.
"First Class" goes back to the very inception of the X-Men, before mutants came into their own as publicly respected superheroes and when they still had teenlike angst about wanting to be "normal." It is the early 1960s, and the two leads/genius minds of the series, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) are at this point young friends, discovering their powers and wondering how to use them.
Charles is already thinking in terms of starting a school, and forming a team of "different people" that could instill some drastic changes in an evil, consumerist society. Erik feels they are too different and much too special to join the common horde of humanity. The two argue (and the seeds of their irreparable rift are sown), but they do so like a couple of philosophers strolling around Mount Olympus — their conversation is lofty, their motives almost disengaged.
Things come to a head when Cold War politics merge with the nuclear scare (hey, no kidding!) to form a prodding stick in the backsides of the duo. Even John F. Kennedy makes a sepia-tinged televised appearance to spur his fellow Americans into action.
Should the mutants act in the interests of mankind? Charles thinks so, but Erik is suspicious. If the populace at large saw what the mutants can do, wouldn't they be resented, ostracized and ultimately murdered? As a boy, Erik saw humans at their worst in a Polish concentration camp — and as a result he plain hates everybody.
Erik has just the right kind of damaged, ravaged persona to inject this prelude with a bit of tragedy and depth. His back story wouldn't have made in into a normal "X-Men" installment, but in this, the episodes are well-timed, well-portioned and work wonderfully. Another reason why going back in time does the future a ton of good.