Mob Rules and the Art of the Team Movie— a review of X-Men: First Class

I saw X-Men: First Class last night.  It was a good, solid action movie with stunning special effects.  It moves and kept me interested.  It never had me on the edge of my seat.  It’s an origin story– it has to go through certain details to collect them all–but it doesn’t do it very interestingly, in my opinion.  It also has trouble with multiple characters, having a hard time giving them much development.  I thought the original X-Men did a better job at giving each character a moment.  While Wolverine, Rogue, Dr Jean Grey, et al have their moments to shine as characters pre-Xavier, we don’t have that in this movie.  Here, we barely know anything about Banshee, Beast, Raven, Angel, Darwin, Havoc.  They are more about what they can do than who they are–though they hint at something deeper.  In all, it’s a pretty good film, but not an amazing one.  Enjoy it as an action flick.

What they might have done with a smaller cast:  We don’t know much about Xavier or Eric except that the first guy seems to be made up of altruism from a life of privilege, and the other is made up of revenge from a life of tragedy. I wished the movie had just stuck with the two of them, and Raven, until the end.  Just compare the life of privilege and the life of tragedy.  And that would have given us all we need to know about these three characters.   The film tries to play with a love triangle, but really shows us nothing.  It lets a viewer “assume” all the good parts of the story.  Where is the torture of Eric?  (in flashback, with quick, suggestive, still images)  Where is the privilege of Xavier? (implied by his mansion, his professorial drinking parties–um this makes gaining a professorship into a Frat challenge!)  How does Xavier learn to be so compassionate?  It must be from reading all those minds and learning all those stories and understanding–through sharing–where all these people have come from, what they’ve gone through.  But we never see that.

Some problems:  X-Men: First Class tries to handle multiple plotlines, multiple characters, with a formulaic “let’s make a team” plot.  I’m not cool with just assuming an audience wants to collect one-trick ponies and put them on set with an uncomplex plot.  The plot, and the background (as other critics have noted) is pure James Bond: Maniacal odd villain (with genetic mutation) is obsessed with controlling the world through “nearly” nuking everyone.  But this time, we know that the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted.  There’s no real threat.  No real moment where I felt this plot could resolve any other way.   We also know who is not going to be hurt, or killed.  Darwin is a redshirt.

The X-Men train for ONE WEEK, and become a super fighting TEAM.  That’s like when Armageddon turned Bruce Willis and other roughnecks into astronauts in (was it one week?  one month?).  I don’t buy it.

No decision, no life, in this film costs any hard work.  No one earns their screen time.  Where is the hardship of the characters in X-Men?  Where is the audience sympathy?  Only Eric has anything bad happen to him at all.  If the others have something hard in their lives, we never see it.  And because we never experience it, we can’t empathize.  We don’t care.

I did enjoy the film–as an action movie.  I think it tries too hard to answer ALL the burning questions in one movie.  How did Charles get crippled? How did Magneto get that helmet?  How did they get their COOL monikers?  It concentrates on a major plot, and gets the action down, but sacrifices all the things you go to see when you see a superhero movie–how does one live with mutant abilities?

It did make me think about movies or stories with gangs or teams–because some of them are done really well (Star Trek, the original X-Men, Cool Running, Watchmen, Fantastic Four, Goonies, Stand by Me, Full Monty, The Usual Suspects) and I came up with some Mob Rules.

1.  If you got a gang of people you’re trying to introduce, try to focus on a two main characters–the rivals

I think one of the more successful recent “gang” movies was JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek which focused on Kirk and Spock, but did a nice job characterizing the other five main characters, and several minor characters.  The movie spent most of its time developing these two characters–boyhood scenes, turning point career moves, first moments in confrontation, and then goes into the scenes where they have to work together. For Kirk, he’s a rebel–steals his stepdad’s car, destroys it, gets in a barroom brawl, decides to take the captain up on his offer, goes to starfleet, screws up the Kobayashi Maru simulation, gets caught in bed with a green girl.  These are all iconic, and they all move the plot forward.  They don’t just develop character, they develop plot.  They also wink at fans who know the intricate details (like why a green girl is important).  Spock has the same telling moments, the same kind of character development; both characters are made to feel outcast, both make decisions based on that.

I think X-Men First Class tried to follow a Star Trek model a bit.  The movie tries to be mostly about Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr (Professor X and Magneto) and set up the movies we’ve already seen by giving us a bit of origin story on these two main characters and how Xavier formed the first X-Men.  But it tackled too much.  The two main characters skip over all the scenes that would show us their development, so that we can get to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

2.  Give all other teammembers at least telling details/telling scenes.

When the other five major characters appear they each get their telling scene— Sulu faking his way through piloting; Chekhov as wunderkind, Uhura multiple times, Scotty left on a base by himself, McCoy on the flight up.  Each has a scene at least where we KNOW these people–not because of what we KNEW, but because of how the scene unfolds due to character.

All the minor characters in X-Men First Class are barely introduced to get ready for their ONLY showdown, their only fight, the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This was never their movie.  Despite a few scenes of them training and too many scenes where they sit in a small lounge discussing their new cool names, there just isn’t enough of them in the movie to make it about them.  They were tools.  The X-Men were pwned.

3.  If this is a gang picture, make the gang count. 

Nothing in the X-Men First Class couldn’t have been done by any other superpowered people.  Nothing they did was part of who they were, or part of the characters themselves–merely their function.  The Beast was another pilot.  Banshee was sonar.  Eric was a giant magnet.  But nothing about those action scenes told us anything about character.  Remember The Incredibles?  Everything they faced was a character moment as well as an action scene.  Sigh.  Every choice made by a character should be a character choice too—and their challenges should be personal challenges too.  Sadly, there’s only ten minutes of real fight.  Why do the “kids” stand around and do nothing when Shaw attacks them at the “secret” CIA base?  And when it comes to the end fight–I’m sorry, this is an Eric/Charles scene.  Raven has nothing to do; the other “kids” really don’t contribute except to fistfight other characters.  This particular gang doesn’t count.

That said, it’s a great afternoon thrill ride, but it really doesn’t do justice to the people behind the powers.  It’s just an assembled powerful weapon, with parts that MIGHT think for themselves. 

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