Comic book movies are Hollywood's commercial god send. Or in the case of Thor, a gods-send. Let's light a candle at the altar of Hollywood's politically correct multicultural gods of Norse Mythology. Asian Vikings. Why didn't Kurosawa cast more Mexicans in Rashomon?
In a movie industry increasingly reliant on remakes and the endless recapitulation of tired themes - I see that Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman have an identity switch movie coming out by virtue of a shared piss in front of magical fountain: You see the irresponsible single guy now has to be married and learn responsibility and the responsible married guy is now single and must rediscover spontaneity and, oh I bet lots of misunderstandings happen, because these themes have never been explored - well, any original content is welcomed.
Comic books are valuable for movie-making because they are dozens of individual, fully realized franchises; beautifully storyboarded American mythology aimed squarely at the intersection of thirty and fortysomething nostalgia, teens, and the now mainstreamed industry of nerdistry. These dollars are a commercial lay-up that you have to work hard not to hit, though artistic quality has proven to be an off-balance three pointer with Kevin Garnett's hand in the director's face.
The focus of these movies has been primarily on execution and canonical adherence and the better results from the thick part of the bell curve can best be described as enjoyably inoffensive (Spider Man, Iron Man) while the bulk have been bad to execrable (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, The Fantastic 4, the pre-Nolan Batman franchise, almost every major franchise sequel). The brilliant Christopher Nolan Batman reboot, or even the underrated Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, are notable exceptions primarily for the degree to which they defy safe executional convention and attack their projects with ambition. They approach their subject matter like real movies instead of risk-averse dollar extractions. Nolan's Batman does it by treating the subject entirely seriously, bereft of any knowing winks, while Pilgrim does it by making it all a giant hipster, ironic, piss-take.
The lesson is: Go dark. Go light. Just go somewhere.
The main comic franchises are crafted for a core audience that walks into the theater predisposed towards nostalgic buy-in on whatever plays out on screen so long as the director doesn't butcher a signature tag line, screw up someone's power profile, botch the CGI, or mangle the costuming. You expect the audience to yell out, "Now do that one move where Wolverine does the thing with his claws when he like double-stabs two guys and he's all like RAAAAA and his enemies are all like, OMG it's Wolverine, yeah, do that one, it gives me chills."
These movies feel like film-making by focus group, custom-built to satisfy the dumb middle of audience expectation.
Comic book nerds don't walk out of the theater criticizing character development, they're more inclined to critique how Iron Man's repulsor rays looked and note any and all heretical deviations from canon. That's why so many of these movies are ultimately bland and unmemorable; a sad panel by panel film re-enactment, an emotionless facsimile of the endless world of creativity that comic books opened up for so many young boys.
Which brings us to Michael Vaughn's X Men: First Class.
Vaughn is clearly aware of these things and sets his tale in the early 1960s to give the story stylistic juice - he captures the zeitgeist of the time and if you don't like early '60s fashion and pop culture you're not much fun as a human being. He injects historical resonance by intertwining the tale with the Cuban Missile Crisis, post-Holocaust Nazi hunting, and the subtext of the civil rights movement. The origin tale for Magneto and Charles Xavier sets the ground for the conflict that will separate the two friends and rivals for the next half century.
The Batman reboot taught us how much casting matters and Vaughn wins by casting real actors over Hollywood names in the lead roles. Michael Fassbender picks right up where he left off from the amazing basement scene in Inglorious Basterds and James McAvoy pulls off Professor X's do-gooderism with a dash of Don Juan. X has mad game with the British birds, y'all. Kevin Bacon is a surprise casting as arch-nemesis Sebastian Shaw and he's a quality sociopath. The comic book version of Shaw looks like Alexander Hamilton on steroids and has no Nazi origins, but Bacon makes it work. I'm sure the purists will groan here and reference Footloose. Extra points if you can reference Quicksilver.
January Jones looks hot and acts without emotional range, but since that's exactly what Emma Frost is supposed to do, it's all good. She spends most of the film in 1960s go-go dancer outfits and if you have complaints about that, further conversation is fruitless.
The movie runs into trouble when it morphs from a gritty and stylish period tale of revenge with a Nazi-hunting Magneto using a Swiss banker's tooth fillings to extract the information he needs, mercilessly visiting justice on his enemies, and unintentionally entangling himself in global Cold War politics into a light-touch teenage mutant recruitment drive session followed by a teenybopper Glee-style teen angst-athon and, wait for it, training sequences! By trying to jam in a half dozen other characters that you don't remotely care about and a little bit of camp, it does justice to none of them and the movie loses its thematic feel. The middle of the film feels like the familiar super-hero formula of the last two decades while the opening and ending promised a much more interesting and unexpected reality.
Pet Peeve #1: I will give my life savings to the next director who will skip the training montage portion of any action film if he'll just cut from the pupil agreeing to be trained by the master to the words: Some time later after the pupil has harnessed his rage and also learned life lessons, we now join him en-route to fucking up the bad guy.
Pet Peeve #2: Telepaths who must touch their temples to demonstrate that they, are like, doing telepathy, are awesome.
Wait, I'm going to read his mind. Touches temple with thumb and forefinger. Adopts mildly constipated look. There. I did it. He's thinking about doughnuts.
I'm doing telepathy! See!
The movie is never bad. In fact, it recovers pretty quickly and ends in a satisfying manner, complete with Magneto performing an impressive coin trick in a nice callback to the movie's beginning. Ultimately, Vaughn just ends up more with Iron Man than the The Dark Knight.
In today's world of denuded film, I give it a thumbs up. What else are you going to do with $11 - buy comic books?