22: X-Men: First Class (cinema)

A film like X-Men: First Class is pretty hard to review. I thoroughly enjoyed it in a way I haven’t enjoyed an X-Men film since X2, which is to say that its an intelligent action movie for stupid people. These being the only team superhero films on the block at the moment, they manage to have issues about pacing, the amount of plot and characterisation that needs to be stuffed in and multiple simultaneous action sequences. To his credit Matthew Vaughn handles all of this pretty well and churns out a clever flick which almost rehabilitates the idea of a prequel. At least here the key sense is if being slavish to continuity spoils your story, then always go with the story. Which is exactly how it should be in every medium.

What interests me the most about the X-Men films is, once minted, how they have had a life of their own, and thus how they have mutated. Certain choices in the initial film begat continuity issues later on. So X-Men: First Class has a pretty different actual first class to the comic X-Men: First Class, many of whose first class were in the class in the first film. (I hope that made no sense). Dramatic arcs for the first were lifted from the comics, but also expanded upon – the Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops lover triangle has significantly more importance in the films. And some characters, almost throwaway henchmen like Mystique, took on a life of their own.

As blue shapeshifter Mystique in X-Men, Rebecca Romijn was asked to do very little but try and make being blue look sexy (which she succeeded exceptionally at). She barely has a line as herself, and is just the go to infiltration pawn. However she stood out as the clear “proud mutant”, she could look like anything yet she chose to look like herself. This isn’t an issue in the comics, there are plenty of mutants who look weird by the time Mystique was introduced. In X-Men nearly all of the mutants can “pass” as human. Without a spoken word, the implicit choice made by Mystique makes her a bolder statement of Magneto’s philosophy. Romijn manages to play all of that with a physicality which guaranteed the role would be expanded upon in X2. There she has a few real standout scenes, is clearly Magneto’s number two and playful in the extreme. Like many characters she was give short shrift in X-Men: The Last Stand – and the character nearly destroyed. But of the major continuity shifts and inventions for X-Men: First Class, it is the bumping up of Mystique into the third most important mutant which is most interesting.

Much like the casting of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence hot off of Winter’s Bone is a masterstroke. Which she is often in the background in the film, Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is a cleverly conflicted character through whom the arrogance of the two leads can be demonstrated. At the heart of the film is a subtext about “passing” (the don’t ask, don’t tell gag is a bit obvious but it still feels nice it is there). And in the end the super powerful mutants whose powers are basically invisible (magnetism and mental) have to make an active decision to use those powers, and even identify that they did it. They can batter around the “why should I have to hide” line, but they are not on the whole actively hiding. You can pass them on the street. The X-Men films, via the much more interesting character of Mystique, have an angle that the comics never had, and one which would be difficult to exploit in a medium where gaudy superpowers were the norm. In Marvel Comics you would dress up funny just to let people know you have a superpower. So while the film also does a great job with Magneto and Xavier, its the development of Mystique’s character that is much more intriguing and marks the movies as significantly different from the comics.

Film 2Oh!! is an attempt to write about every film I have seen this year which is really quite tricky. This year I have seen 119 films, written about 22. I am losing.