X-Men: First Class Dir. Matthew Vaughn

[20th Century Fox; 2011]

Styles: comic book, summer action
Others: X-Men, Kick-Ass

Sometimes it seems strange that the same pure love of movies should return me with equal fervor to blockbusters every summer and to Mizoguchi and Chaplin the rest of every year, but the constant challenge of searching out good movies is no less justified when looking for the best CGI action sequence than it is when hunting down rare Jean Vigo films. And some say the difference between blockbusters and non-blockbusters isn’t so great. Because there’s a word for meaningful trash, isn’t there? There’s pulp. And a lot of “serious art” is considered just that. When a big-budget movie seems to have something equally big on its mind, it tends to get stuck with the label too. Pulpy films have been in abundance lately, so that from Donnie Darko to Sin City to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, creepy, idiosyncratic, and messy movies are being treated like priceless cultural artifacts. But I’m not happy with them.

The real connection, I think, between my love of summer flicks and my reverence for more ‘artful’ films, is that there’s always some hope of marrying the two without trash being part of the equation, of finding a movie with as human and heartbreaking a superhero story as the tales of the tramp in Chaplin movies. And so, even at the risk of occasionally missing the point, I keep holding blockbusters to as high a standard as possible. After all, haven’t we been hearing endless rhetoric (much of it from the studios) about the seriousness of what are ostensibly action films — Hulk, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, the first X-Men — for years? Aren’t these movies asking to be taken seriously as Iraq and Cold War parables, as movies that say something about racial injustice, government corruption, the nature of crime, while simultaneously claiming pedestals in the pulp film canon? If they’re asking for it, I’m always happy to oblige. But I’m still eager for the day when a great director will pull off the feat of bilking a huge budget from a major studio and using it to make a finely realized, character-based superhero movie with nods to the German New Wave.

This hasn’t happened with X-Men: First Class. Not by a long shot. But you can see where the desire to do better is there. It won’t be considered as good as The Dark Knight, though both attempt to balance weighty themes with ridiculous costumes and to justify character traits that were obviously never intended to be justified (Why does The Joker paint his face? Why do the X-Men all have cool codenames?). But the only things making First Class any less serious than The Dark Knight are its color palette and its decidedly less dour mood. Just as many secondary characters are violently murdered, just as many modern issues are brazenly broached, and just as much ridiculousness is passed off as commentary.

The X-Men movies are superficially topical. They imagine a world in which some human babies have spontaneously mutated genes, and that those mutations have given them precisely refined powers that range from mind-reading to blasts of lasers that shoot out of their eyes. The movies also imagine that the mutated people fill the same role as black people before the passage of civil rights laws. And just as in the actual civil rights struggle, the X-Men universe has its factions of leaders within the cause. There have been four previous X-Men movies. First Class is the prequel to all of them, in which we get to see the leaders of the mutant’s rights fight come to power.

The movie starts off promisingly, weaving together the origin stories of Professor Xavier and Magneto — the essential yin and yang of the Marvel universe, the MLK and Malcom X of the mutant’s rights struggle (though no one involved in the franchise has had the balls to make the connection explicit) — in scenes that happily seem to exist beyond their expository functions. Xavier (James McAvoy) is a geneticist and ladies man who feels that humans and mutants might one day peacefully coexist. Magneto (Michael Fassbender, an actor great enough to play the same character as Ian McKellan, but still too good for this movie) is not only a mutant but also a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Needless to say, his views on man’s kindness to outsiders are somewhat pessimistic. A few early scenes featuring Fassbender jetting around the globe stalking hidden Nazis are slow, well-written, and malevolent, the best the movie will offer.

After that, the story is mostly given over to its movie’s budget and as many digital submarines, government installations, and bursts of nuclear energy as that budget could conjure. Intermittently, the audience is reminded that we’re watching the story of X and Magneto realizing the power of the newly emergent mutantkind, tracking down and recruiting young mutants in hiding, and taking sides in the battle over how to use them. To his credit, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) makes attempts to give the proceedings some rhythm, but he’s out of luck if he thought that an animated nuclear submarine crashing onto a Cuban beach would be mistaken for a real submarine crashing onto a Cuban beach.

The best thing about X-Men: First Class is not its special effects, though they’re exciting enough to gloss over the gaps in the civil rights analogy. Nor is it the acting and the character development, even though everyone involved seems to be hanging on to the intended gravity of the story for dear life. The best thing about First Class is that it’s not aiming for trash or for art. It can be taken for what it is: a silly superhero movie with a straight face, doing a slightly better job than it needed to of setting up a franchise.

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