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Marvel Movies Project: X-Men: First Class

Movie poster for X-Men: First Class (2011).

We’re coming to the end of this project now: 22 movies down, five to go! The fifth last film in our series is X-Men: First Class (2011), which goes back in time to the 1960s to tell the story of how Professor X and Magneto met and became friends, then enemies. It also exposes for the first time the Professor’s childhood friendship with .. Mystique?

There are things I really like about this movie, most notably Michael Fassbender’s excellent performance as Magneto. 2011 was the Year of Fassbender and based on the presence he shows here it’s not hard to see why. His menacing, powerful Magneto dominates the movie. The other standout is Nicholas Hoult, who beautifully plays Hank McCoy as a shy, vulnerable nerd. X-Men: First Class also has some good action setpieces along with standout scenes like the fun training sequence at Xavier’s mansion, Wolverine’s cameo, and basically any scene where Magneto is the main focus.

The film makes interesting use of Mystique, or more specifically the way the male characters react to her — Charles is uncomfortable with her true form and wants her to hide, Hank flat out tells her she’s ugly, and Erik finds her beautiful. This of course reflects their attitudes to mutation — Charles wants to fit in with society at large, Hank doesn’t like feeling like a freak, and Erik thinks mutants are superior. I have become a real Mystique fan through this rewatch, and I think the shocking nature of her appearance is in large part what makes her so fascinating. Rebecca Romijn played her in the first three X-Men movies with a very confrontational attitude: you can see in Romijn’s performance that Mystique’s “nudity” is one of her weapons. She loves it when people stare, especially if they seem disgusted by what they see. Jennifer Lawrence is playing a version of Mystique who’s much less sure of herself and still trying to work out how she feels about her body. I think Lawrence plays this well, but her version of Mystique is by nature less dynamic than Romijn’s.

A few things I’m not crazy about with this movie: well, January Jones is pretty terrible as Emma Frost. She’s very lucky to have been cast as Betty on Mad Men; it’s a role that apparently falls right into her sweet spot as an actress. It seems clear she doesn’t have much range. However, this random fact from the IMDb trivia page almost makes up for her performance:

This is the second time that January Jones has been cast in 1962 opposite an actor with a pork based name. The first was in Mad Men opposite Jon Hamm and then this alongside Kevin Bacon.

Almost.

Talking about Emma Frost leads me to the next thing I’m not crazy about, which is the fact that this movie is really sexist. It especially stands out as such when you watch it right after Thor, as I did this week. All four major female characters appear undressed at least once. Emma Frost’s bra might as well be credited as a supporting character (pun intended). Angel is a stripper, plus she’s the first good mutant to turn evil.

I will also take this opportunity to mention the film’s treatment of non-white characters: they’re all evil except Darwin, who’s dead. And speaking of Darwin, how about that moment where Shaw offers the mutants a choice: they can either be enslaved [SHOT OF BLACK GUY TO EMPHASIZE REFERENCE TO SLAVERY] or rise up to rule. Really?

Director Matthew Vaughn has said the sexism is intentional (he doesn’t mention the racism): they were trying to re-create the feel of a 1960s Bond movie, which they do successfully through the movie’s visual style, and yes, the depiction of women is accurate for that type of movie. However, the X-Men franchise is supposed to be progressive. This is supposed to be a story about diversity, equality, and acceptance. The heroes are the outcasts: the ones oppressed by society and treated as inhuman for being different. Surely the film has some kind of responsibility to reflect those ideals in its portrayals of real life oppressed groups.

First Class was the second lowest grossing X-Men movie so far, ahead only of X-Men, but it was still quite successful for Fox and they’ve planned a sequel for 2014. I’ve already mentioned this briefly in my post about X-Men: The Last Stand, but it bears repeating that Bryan Singer will be back in the director’s chair for this one and he intends to use the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes from The Last Stand.

The really intriguing thing about Days of Future Past is the cast, which will combine actors from the original X-Men trilogy with those from First Class. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are in it, but so are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Hugh Jackman will be back for what will be his world record seventh go round as Wolverine (The Wolverine is out July 26th). Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus) will also be back, as will Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Oscar win) and Nicholas Hoult. It’ll be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

Also interesting: apparently, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past will share continuity not only with the original X-Men movies, but also with Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Fox is creating its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Mark Millar presiding over the whole thing. I feel a bit like they’re stepping on Marvel Studios’ toes here. On the other hand, this might be really cool. I guess we’ll see.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand movie poster

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) saw a major change for the X-Men franchise: Bryan Singer, who directed both X-Men and X2, left the Marvel Universe and went over to DC to do Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to take over. Singer did such a great job on the first two films. I think it’s fair to say his voice was missed here.

The film picks up an unspecified amount of time after X2 left off, with the team still dealing with Jean’s death. Cyclops in particular is pretty much broken after losing his true love. But then … surprise! She’s not really so dead after all: she reappears mysteriously, kills Cyclops quite unceremoniously (he just disappears from the movie so James Marsden could go with Singer and play the nice guy in Superman Returns), and returns to the X-Mansion where she and her immense power become film’s focus.

We see a flashback to the time Professor X and Magneto (played by heavily airbrushed versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) first visited Jean when she was a child, at which time her power amazed even them. Then we learn that Jean has a split personality, caused by the Professor’s attempts to create roadblocks that prevented her from accessing her full powers. This raises some interesting questions about the morality of mind control. More generally, control and the violation of free will are the major themes of the movie. Wolverine, who has strong feelings on the subject thanks to his own past, is appalled by what the Professor did to Jean, but the Professor strongly feels he acted in her best interests. For her part, Jean seems kind of pissed off. So, she disintegrates Professor X with her mind and goes to join Magneto.

The other big development in the film is the creation of a “cure” for mutation. Some of the mutants see this as a good thing, in particular Rogue, who almost immediately goes off to get cured. If you hadn’t seen any of the other X-Men movies, you might look at Rogue’s actions and think she was just doing it because she was jealous of Bobby’s flirtation with Kitty Pryde. In the context of the series as a whole, though, we know that Rogue has always been uncomfortable with her powers. On the other hand, she seemed to be coping better in X2, and that does make this seem like a step back in her character development. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with her given the extreme nature of her mutation.

But Rogue seems to be in the minority and many other mutants most definitely do not like the idea of being cured. Storm is offended by the very word “cure,” asking “when did we become a disease?” Meanwhile, Magneto is convinced that regular humans will eventually use the cure as a weapon against mutants — and he’s quickly proven right. Magneto’s righthand woman Mystique is among the first victims of the cure as weapon … and he drops her instantly, leaving her lying naked in the road after declaring that she’s no longer “one of us.” Ouch. It’s a sad end for Mystique, who I found to be one of the more interesting characters as I watched the series this time around. I’m not sure whether X-Men: First Class may have altered my perception of her — possibly — but I find her anger at the way the world treats outcasts like her very striking. She’s also extremely competent and smart, and after Magneto abandons her she gets back at him very quickly by giving evidence to the government. Screw you, Magneto.

The cure seems to bring out the worst in everyone, human and mutant alike. Even the X-Men, some of whom have expressed serious reservations about the cure’s very existence, end up using it as a weapon against Magneto. This is at best a morally questionable action. At worst, it’s a huge violation of Magneto’s rights. There’s no way to see it as anything other than massively hypocritical coming from people like Storm, who’s been vocal about her hatred of the cure, and Wolverine, who was so hard on the Professor for his treatment of Jean. And then there’s the end of Jean’s story (presumably), which sees Wolverine kill her to save her from herself after the two re-enact the yellow crayon scene from Buffy. At least she asked him to do it, I guess?

My point is there’s a lot of moral outrage in this movie that doesn’t end up meaning much when characters actually find their philosophies tested. The cure is a complex issue, no doubt, but it just feels as though some characters give up on their principles a little too easily. The whole film feels somewhat garbled, with old characters dying suddenly — at least they stop to mourn Professor Xavier; poor Cyclops’ passing is hardly noticed — or, like Mystique, suffering unsatisfactory endings. New characters like Angel, Colossus, and Kitty show up for a few brief scenes but aren’t well developed. Angel in particular is wasted: a couple of (admittedly very cool) shots of his wings end up being his major contribution to the movie. Kelsey Grammer as Beast is the only one of the new cast members who gets enough screen time to make a strong impression.

All in all, it’s a disappointing ending to this porton of the X-Men series. I leave you with a glimpse at what might have been had Superman Returns never happened (quick answer: we’d all be better off) via Cracked’s article on 6 Famously Terribly Movies That Were Almost Awesome. Interestingly, Bryan Singer has rejoined the world of mutants to direct the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, and has said he’ll used that film to try to “fix” some of what happened in The Last Stand. It’s an intriguing proposition. Hopefully it’ll work out.