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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: X2

X2 movie poster

X2 (2003), aka X-Men 2: X-Men United, is a great movie. We’ve got the director of X-Men, Bryan Singer, directing essentially the same cast, playing the same characters we met in that first film: it’s a world we’ve already been introduced to, so X2 is able to dive right into the action — which it does fairly spectacularly, with the amazingly choreographed and CGI-ed opening sequence featuring the attack on the President of the United States by the teleporting German mutant Kurt Wagner (whose circus name is Nightcrawler). This is but the first of many brilliant action setpieces in X2. My favourite is probably the one where soldiers attack Xavier’s school while all the X-Men are away from home and Wolverine is babysitting. Talk about bad timing — for the soldiers, that is.

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler is one of a few major new additions to the cast. He’s terrific, and I must note what a trip it was to see him in full blue again after having watched him as the forever-suit-and-tie-wearing Eli Gold on The Good Wife for the last three years or so.

Same guy? Same guy.

The other important new castmembers are the always excellent Brian Cox as William Stryker, Aaron Stanford as Pyro, and Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. All the new additions work well; Lady Deathstrike is perhaps less well-used than some, but her fight scene with Wolverine is memorable, as is her horrific death by adamantium.

A couple of characters from the first film also take on larger roles in the sequel: Shawn Ashmore as Bobby “Iceman” Drake, boyfriend of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. Mystique wasn’t exactly invisible in X-Men, but I feel Rebecca Romijn gets more of a chance to shine in X2 as Mystique is clearly shown to be Magneto’s right-hand woman, and valuable for more than just her mutant power. Iceman, who really only had a cameo in the first film, is much more prominent here; the scenes featuring the “younger generation” — Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro — are integral to the plot, and each gets some good character moments. The scene that takes place at Bobby Drake’s house is classic, as his parents try to deal with the revelation that their son isn’t just really smart. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” his mother asks, calling to mind the real life struggles of GLBQT people (as well as a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). According to Bryan Singer, it was this metaphorical element of the story that drew Ian McKellen to the role of Magneto in the first place. From the Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex blog:

As for Ian, he liked the idea of the movie because of the gay allegory — the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their ‘difference’ manifests. Ian is activist and he reality responded to the potential of that allegory.

Strangely enough, I sometimes find it harder to write about the movies I really love than the ones I’m not so crazy about. At this point, I’m kind of running out of things to say about X2 other than “it’s awesome,” so I will tell you a little story about the first time I saw this film in theatre. About half way through the movie, I started to feel a need … a need to have peed. Problem: the movie was so good I didn’t want to miss anything. So, I held it. And held it. I really, really had to go. I was just trying not to think about it, but it became a little bit hard to avoid what with the climax of the film featuring a dam bursting. Luckily, the flooding only happened on screen.

Next film in the series is Ang Lee’s take on the enormous green rage monster in Hulk. I didn’t like this movie much at the time, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings have changed.