Jun 7, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)
The Superhero Tentpole As Sixties Spy Movie

While I love the richly textured period detail in the recent OSS 117 movies, those parodies also made me wish that someone would make a straight spy movie set in the Sixties, with Sixties fashions and attitudes, but contemporary fight choreography and special effects. Well, now Matthew Vaughn has done it, and it’s excellent! Some might not see it as a straight spy movie since it’s also got superheroes, but regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware of the long association between the spy and superhero genres, which actually thrived in the Sixties. Despite the title, X-Men: First Class is a spy movie with superheroes, not the other way around. And as it’s a prequel to the previous entries in the X-Men series, it is not required that a viewer have any prior knowledge of the characters to see this one… so even if you generally avoid superhero fare, but you like Sixties Bond movies, by all means do yourself a favor and see X-Men: First Class, post-haste!

Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) takes his stylistic guidance primarily from Sean Connery Bond movies, Sixties heist flicks (including the original Ocean’s 11) and British television adventure series of the era, like The Avengers, The Champions and Department S. There are so many nods to Sixties spy sources that espionage fans will be in constant ecstasy savoring it all. First and foremost, X-Men: First Class has all the Jet Age globetrotting of the original Bond films. In the first half-hour alone (more or less), the plot jumps smoothly (more or less) from Germany to New York to London to Switzerland to Las Vegas to Langley to Argentina to Miami, and later makes additional stops in Moscow and Cuba. Vaughn savors all the locations in the same way that Terence Young did, providing lingering establishing shots of each new locale to stimulate the audience’s escapist travel fantasies too often ignored by modern Bond movies. (Or cut too quickly to take in, as was the case with the deplorable Quantum of Solace.)

The CIA has a millionaire villain named Sebastian Shaw under surveillance. They suspect him of collaborating with the Soviets, but they don’t know the half of it. Kevin Bacon plays Shaw, and in keeping with the character’s comic book origins which were torn wholesale (by writer Chris Claremont) from the classic Avengers episode “A Touch of Brimstone,” he ably channels all the louche decadence of Peter Wyngarde (who guest-starred on that episode). In the comics, Shaw had a confederate who wore that influence on his sleeve with a name that conjured both the actor and his most immortal character, Jason King (hero of the ITC show Department S and its spinoff Jason King): Jason Wyngarde. Sadly Jason Wyngarde isn’t in this movie, but Bacon’s svelte Shaw seems to owe as much to Wyngarde (both the character and the actor) as he does to the Shaw of the comics, who was based on the more solidly built Bond villain Robert Shaw. While he doesn’t sport Jason King’s (and Wyngarde’s) distinctive facial hair (which would have been rather anachronistic to this film’s 1962 setting), he does share his affinity for cravats and flamboyant velour suits (which is in itself a tad anachronistic, but more forgivably so). The character also shares Jason King’s taste for luxury. His private submarine/mobile lair (whose first appearance is one of the film’s biggest spy fan delights) is decked out in all the luxury trappings of a Sixties bachelor pad. Its velvet cushions, paisley wallpaper, shag carpets and stocked minibar (natch) all recall not only that crate (average on the outside) that Jason King used to smuggle himself into East Berlin, but also James Bond’s iceberg mini-sub in A View To A Kill.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When we meet Shaw, he’s entertaining a selection of America’s richest and most powerful men at his Hellfire Club, which has been relocated from The Avengers’ London to Las Vegas. (The establishing shot of Vegas deliberately evokes Diamonds Are Forever, even if it’s a decade early.) The CIA is keeping tabs on the event from a car across the street, but agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) realizes the need to get closer and sees her opportunity, which comes right out of “A Touch of Brimstone.” Shaw’s right-hand woman, Emma Frost (again, Claremont deliberately appropriated Emma Peel’s first name for his Hellfire Club’s White Queen; Diana Rigg’s Peel was the Black Queen in “A Touch of Brimstone”), played by Mad Men’s January Jones (remaining safely in her comfortable Sixties milieu; more on her in a moment), is shepherding a bevy of lingerie-clad beauties into the Playboy Club-like event. Moira quickly strips down to her underwear, which, of course, is black lingerie sexy enough in itself that it might have been selected deliberately for the occasion, but as it happens, it’s a moment of inspiration. “What are you doing?” asks her male partner, aghast. “Using some equipment not issued by the CIA,” she replies (or something to that effect). That gives Vaughn the opportunity to keep his female spy in lingerie while she does her spying (yes, actual spying—something you don’t see too much in any spy movies anymore!), which seems very appropriately Sixties. Also appropriately Sixties is the spot-on art direction by Chris Seagers (Johnny English), which recalls not only Ken Adam’s Bond sets, but also his famous war room from Dr. Strangelove, which is lovingly recreated. In the club, there’s also a nod to Live and Let Die with a revolving booth. The only aspect that could stand to be more Sixties is Henry Jackman's score.  There's nothing wrong with it, and sometimes (as during the Maurice Binder-inspired end titles), it evokes the era plenty.  But I would have preferred a brassier, more John Barry-ish accompaniment throughout, akin to Michael Giacchino's Incredibles music.  Oh well.

When Moira’s intelligence gathering reveals the presence of mutants in our midst to the CIA for the first time (well, at least to her; her superiors require convincing), she sets out to recruit an expert on the phenomenon. That leads her to Oxford, where she meets newly-minted Professor Charles Xavier, played here by James McAvoy (and in the previous movies, at a more advanced age, by Patrick Stewart). Charles has penned a thesis on mutant genes, but keeps secret his own mutant power of telepathy, preferring to use it for parlor tricks to pick up girls in pubs. (He also manages to use the word “groovy” in his pick-ups—and, surprisingly, sells it!) With Charles she also gets his adoptive sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mutant power allows her to assume the form of any person she wants. (She’ll later become Mystique, played by Rebecca Romijn in the other X-Men movies.) Raven’s demonstration convinces the CIA that they need a mutant division, and it’s quickly established under the direction of an underused Oliver Platt.

Xavier’s first mission for the CIA (to locate Sebastian Shaw and the nefarious mutants already observed by Moira) takes him into contact with the movie’s real star, the future Magneto (played in the other films by Ian McKellen), Erik Lehnsherr. Erik is played by Inglourious Basterds’ Michael Fassbender in a truly star-making turn that also unspools as an extended audition for James Bond. People have been touting Fassbender as a successor to Daniel Craig since Hunger, but this is the first performance in which he’s truly sold me on the notion. (And then some!)

Fassbender’s part is by far the most complex and well-developed in the movie—and also the coolest. As a child, Erik’s mutant gift for manipulating metal (I know, it sounds like a really lame power but actually turns out to be the coolest one in the film!) first manifested itself when he was separated from his parents while interned in a concentration camp. The Nazis, led by Bacon’s character in a previous identity, conducted horrifying experiments on him and he watched his mother murdered before his eyes. When we catch up with him again in 1962, he’s using his powers as a revenge-driven Nazi hunter. He’s also dressing like James Bond (a suit he wears in Geneva could have come right off Connery’s back in From Russia With Love—complete with hat) and behaving like him as well. (And when he’s not in suits, he wears more black turtlenecks than Sterling Archer—and pulls off the look with great elan.) These moments of Erik exuding cool and exacting vengeance in Europe and South America are among the film’s most Bondian, and they’re utterly thrilling as filmed by Vaughn. The future Magneto’s quest to find his mother’s killer takes him from Argentina to Miami, where he engages in some Goldfinger-style scuba skulduggery and finally crosses paths with Charles Xavier in the film’s best spy setpiece.

Despite having vastly different outlooks on their mutant status, Charles and Erik share a common objective in tracking down Sebastian Shaw. Therefore, they team up and forge a moving friendship. Fassbender and McAvoy have excellent chemistry together, and I wish that events of this movie would have allowed for further adventures together, because they make a great team. Of course their ultimate destinies (explored in Bryan Singer’s compelling X-Men and X2 and Brett Ratner’s risible X3) lie light years apart, but this period of friendship is fertile enough that it easily could have (and probably should have) fuelled a trilogy rather than a single film. Vaughn accomplishes in this single movie what the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy failed to; he succeeds in making the character we all know turns out to be a villain into a thoroughly likable hero, and we’re rooting for him not to take the path we know he does. However, that ultimate choice feels a bit rushed crammed into the movie’s final fifteen minutes or so, and I wish it had played out over more films. Oh well. The friendship and ultimate schism between these two men provides the heart and backbone of X-Men: First Class, but the entire ensemble is for the most part successful.

Together, Charles and Erik recruit a small cadre of young mutants to the CIA team in a recruiting sequence reminiscent of great Sixties capers like Grand Slam, Topkapi and Ocean’s 11. They also find another mutant already working for the CIA in a Q capacity in the form of Hank McCoy (the future Beast, played by Nicholas Hoult). While the (slightly) older characters are the more interesting ones, the scenes of the young mutants exploring and developing their powers are expertly handled, leading to an action climax that incorporates each of their specific skills like a super-powered Mission: Impossible against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Shaw also has his own team of mutant hench-people, foremost among them the aforementioned Emma Frost. January Jones aims for ice queen but comes off more as wooden, though she makes a most attractive clothes horse for costume designer Sammy Sheldon’s fabulous Emma Peel-inspired attire. (Still, her performance here is a definite improvement over the one in the Liam Neeson neo-Eurospy caper Unknown earlier this year.) For a fairly major character from the comics, Emma Frost has remarkably little to do in the movie—and disappears for most of the second half. But when she is on screen, it’s always in an amazing take on Diana Rigg’s wardrobe, which is a welcome sight—if a tad anachronistic for 1962. Her catsuit probably should have been closer to Cathy Gale’s looser motorcycle leathers than Emma Peel’s body-hugging get-up… but that’s just not as much fun! And this movie is fun.

In X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn has crafted not just a fantastic homage to Sixties spydom, but a fantastic movie in its own right—and the best in the X-Men series to date. Watching it makes me even sadder that his take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. never came to fruition. Vaughn clearly loves the era and the genre. Thanks to him, I finally have that Sixties-set modern action movie I always wanted—and enhanced with well-executed superheroics. This is the spy movie to beat so far this year, and all fans of the genre should check it out.

For more on the connections between these X-Men characters and The Avengers (including wardrobe similarities), click here.

2 comments:

BOB said...

Michael Fassbender stole the movie, who I've read on other sites would consider playing James Bond after Craig.
During the end credits I loved the "Dr No" flashing dots.

Armstrong Sabian said...

Lindsay Dunlap played everyone like a fiddle in that Man From UNCLE situation. I bet UNCLE fans are kicking themselves now for being so duped.