Universal Translator

Saturday, June 4, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

As I mentioned in an earlier post, when I was a very young child my grandfather used to gift me with anthologies reprinting classic comic books.  The very first one I can remember getting from him was a collection of classic 1960s Marvel Comics origins, which told how The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Thor all got started.  I was (maybe) five when he gave this to me, and I pestered my poor grandmother to read me those stories over and over again until she grew sick of them and decided to teach me to read for myself.  Ammy just wanted me to leave her alone, but teaching me to read was undoubtedly the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

So I have a soft spot for Marvel Comics, which I kept reading over the years.  And like any good comic book fanboy I found reprints of the older stuff – the stuff that came out before I was even born – so that today I have a fairly good grasp of the underlying mythos that surrounds those comic book franchises and the movies they are making based on those franchises.  Because I have such a soft spot for this stuff I was really looking forward to X-Men:  First Class, and I went to see it last night.

Boy . . . did that suck!

I’m going to get into why it sucked below the fold just ‘cause I think it’ll be fun to slag on this movie, but be warned:  if you have any intention of seeing this movie for yourself do not read any further.  SPOILER ALERT!

 First of all and by way of setting a reference point for why X-Men:  First Class failed so spectacularly, let’s start by talking briefly about Thor, another Marvel Comics movie that was released only a couple of weeks ago.  I went to see Thor, too, and I’ve got to say that I enjoyed it.  It isn’t a great movie – although Kenneth Branagh directs, it certainly isn’t “Shakespearian” – but it is a perfectly serviceable summertime comic book entertainment and that is all I am looking for when I go to these things.

I’ve seen Thor criticized because it is so heavily laden with CGI effects, especially the scenes that take place in Asgard or involve the Asgardians’ ancient enemies the Frost Giants.  Mostly, the complaints seem to be that the movie doesn’t “look real.”  But I think these complaints miss the point.  Thor revolves around actual gods who live in a realm entirely different from our own – it isn’t supposed to look “real” it is supposed to look different than anything we are used to seeing.  And, personally, I thought the movie’s look nicely captured the style legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby created for Asgard way back in the 1960s when he first drew it.

And Thor is a fairly uncluttered piece of storytelling.  Basically, the title character is an arrogant hot-head whose penchant for war and smashing things up real good might end up being fairly disastrous for Asgard.  So his father, Odin, strips him of his power and sends him to earth where he can learn humility.  Meanwhile, Thor’s brother Loki uses Thor’s banishment as an opportunity to seize Odin’s power for himself.  This isn’t very complicated, and the story of a hero’s humiliation and subsequent redemption is a classic.  There is enough action in the movie that it doesn’t get bogged down and there are no major gaping plot holes. 

In fact, the only problem I had with Thor was that not enough time appeared to pass in the movie for Thor’s “life lesson” to have really taken place.  Thor is on earth for about a week, I figure, and suddenly changes from a well-meaning but arrogant prick into a considerate and self-sacrificing mensch.  (As near as I can tell from the movie, this results simply from the fact he goes on a drinking binge one night with a supporting character).  Similarly, Thor’s spontaneous and passionate love for Natalie Portman’s character (and her reciprocation of same) seems to come out of nowhere, and to be based on nothing more than the fact he is a big, buff hunky Nordic dude and she is, well, Natalie Portman.

But, y’know what?  Thor isn’t supposed to be a character movie, it is supposed to be a simple summertime superhero flick, and on that basis I thought it succeeded quite well.

Now let’s look at X-Men:  First Class.

* * *

First, the good points.  Most of the movie takes place in 1962 (the original X-Men series, created by Stan Lee and – once again – Jack Kirby, debuted in September 1963), and I loved the look of the film.  Part of it takes place in England just a few years before the time of “Swinging London,” and watching James McAvoy, who plays a young Charles “Professor X” Xavier, use the word “groovy” as he hits on a co-ed seemed charmingly retro but still natural for the film. 

The same is true with the clothes, hairstyles, furniture, automobiles, etc.  Actually, I couldn’t help but think that most of the “60’s” look captured on film is probably just a little off; it was before my time, but the fashion looked to me like something that didn’t catch on until the late 60’s – a few years after what I perceive to have been the rather more stolid time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But, again, this is a summertime comic book flick and the retro charm of seeing those late 60’s fashions up on the big screen more than makes up for any slight anachronism.

Second, I completely bought McAvoy as a young Professor X, and Michael Fassbender as a young Magneto.  Great casting.

Third, January Jones looks absolutely fantastic walking around in lingerie.  (If only they could have figured out a way for her to do that without having to actually speak . . . . )

And now let’s tear into this sucker . . .

The Dumb Plot         

The plot sucks.  Bad guy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants to engineer a thermonuclear war between the USSR and the USA, and so he turns out to be the driving force behind the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And why would Shaw want to start a thermonuclear war?  Well, you see, mutants are “the children of the atom,” and it is radiation that gave rise to their evolution as Homo Superior.  Shaw figures that a thermonuclear war will only make the mutants stronger, while at the same time destroying most of the regular Homo Sapiens humans.

Jesus . . . how many things are wrong with this?

First, the whole “children of the atom” thing is an obvious nod to the original X-Men comic book franchise, which did indeed refer to mutants as “the children of the atom.”  Of course, back then whenever Stan Lee needed to invent a superhero, radiation was his go-to source.  The Fantastic Four?  Cosmic Ray radiation.  The Incredible Hulk?  Gamma radiation.  Spider-Man?  Radioactive spider bite.  Seriously, if they had had microwave ovens in the 60’s Stan Lee would’ve microwaved his own balls in an attempt to get super pecker powers.

But in the movie itself, hmmmm, let me see . . . .  Professor X:  mutant born prior to the atomic age.  Magneto:  mutant born prior to the atomic age.  Mystique:  mutant born prior to the atomic age.  Wolverine:  mutant born prior to the atomic age.  Sebastian Shaw, the genius who thought up this idiotic plan:  mutant born prior to the atomic age.  It seems pretty clear that in the movie mutants are not, in fact, “the children of the atom.” 

And, besides . . . why the hell would Shaw want to kill off most of the human population?  It is clear from the film he enjoys the finer things in life.  Wouldn’t he just want to rule the world?  What the hell kind of idiot comes up with a plan to rule a nuclear-incinerated charcoal briquette?

 This is a dumb, dumb plot.

The Minor Plot Holes

These things abound.

(1)  Magneto’s Earliest Idiocy

In the beginning of the film, Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is a young Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and Sebastian Shaw is working as a Nazi.  Shaw notices Eric’s ability to move metal and tries to get him to demonstrate this power on command.  When Eric fails to do so, Shaw shoots and kills Eric’s mother.  Consumed with rage, Eric goes berserk, crushing a metal filing cabinet, a small bell, and utterly wrecking what appears to be a torture chamber filled with metal tools.  He also kills the two Nazi guards who had been holding his mother by crushing their skulls with their own metal helmets. 

But he doesn’t do a goddamned thing to the dude who actually, y’know, shot and killed his mom.   What the hell? 

Remember, when this takes place in the movie we have no idea that the Nazi who just killed Magneto’s mom is the main villain, or that he is a mutant, or even that he is Kevin Bacon (at least I didn’t; I didn’t recognize him under all that makeup).  So there we are, watching this thing, expecting this mom-killing Nazi piece of shit to get his head handed to him and . . . nothing.  Magneto kills everybody else, but not this guy.

And the only reason I can figure he didn’t kill this guy is that – if he had – the movie would be over and we wouldn’t get to sit through 2 plus hours of Magneto looking for revenge against the guy who killed his mommy.

(2)  Magneto’s Inability to Find a Big Ass Submarine When it Might be Important

When Magneto finally does track down Shaw (the first time), Shaw escapes in a nuclear-powered submarine that Magneto attempts to pull out of the water.  And then later, at almost the very end of the movie, Magneto’s ability to sense metal is made crystal clear.  Explaining how he is aware that both the US and Soviet fleets are preparing to bomb the crap out of the beach where the mutants are standing, Magneto says “I can feel the guns turning in this direction.”

But just 20 minutes prior to that, after the good guys have figured out that Shaw must be on a submarine somewhere in the water directly underneath their plane, Magneto is absolutely frigging clueless about how to locate Shaw.  He can use his magnetic powers to sense the direction that guns are pointing from a mile away, he can manipulate submarines underwater, but he is somehow incapable of combining these abilities to find the submarine in the first place.

Why?  ‘Cause the moviemakers had to figure out a way to squeeze some use out of Banshee’s mutant power to yell really loud, and they came up with the idea of using him as “sonar.”  Of course, in order for this to make any sense at all they have to temporarily turn Magneto into a useless twit.

(3)  Charles Xavier’s Amazing Disappearance

When we first meet Charles Xavier he is a fantastically rich little boy living in an enormous English baronial land estate that incongruously has been transplanted to Westchester, New York.  Years later, Moira MacTaggert, a CIA agent, finds him in Oxford right after he has been granted (as near as I can tell from the movie) his “professor degree.”  MacTaggert takes him to the CIA, introduces him to the U.S. government as a mutant telepath and, with the help of the U.S. government, Xavier starts looking for other mutants all over the world.  He eventually takes his team of mutants to his huge ancestral home in Westchester where they “train.”

However, by the end of the film the U.S. government has grown very concerned about the potential “mutant menace” and they want to find Xavier.  But Xavier has decided to turn his enormous mansion/castle/home into a school for mutants, and he doesn’t want to be bothered by the government.  So he mind-wipes MacTaggert, and now she has no clue where to find him.  Without MacTaggert telling her CIA superiors exactly where Xavier is, the entire U.S. government is flummoxed.

Well, here’s an idea:  why don’t you intelligence geniuses go look for Charles Xavier at his fucking home?  I mean, I know we didn’t have the internet back then, but the Xavier family wasn’t exactly living life under the radar before Charles’s mutant abilities were brought to the government’s attention (and we never are told what happened to Charles’s parents).  To be sure, if the government were all that keen to find this guy you’d think they would at the very least pop around to his house to see if he might be in.

But no.  One mind-wipe of Moira MacTaggert and the CIA is utterly clueless.  Imbeciles.

The Bad Time Lines

Remember how I said the only quibble I really had with Thor was that it all took place over too short a period of time?  Well that was a masterpiece of pacing compared to X-Men:  First Class.

(1) Professor X and Magneto meet for the first time when they both end up going after Sebastian Shaw on the same night.  Shaw manages to escape in his nuclear-powered submarine and proceeds to make his way to the USSR to set his grand plan in place.  Meanwhile Professor X and Magneto team up, join the CIA, and start looking for mutants.  They travel all around the country meeting mutant after mutant and recruiting them to their cause.  I figure this must’ve taken at least a month, maybe two.  Meanwhile, that entire time, Shaw and his crew stay on the world’s slowest moving submarine, en route to Russia.

(2)  Later, after learning about Shaw’s plan to force the world’s two competing superpowers into thermonuclear war, Xavier and Magneto take their recruits to Xavier’s Ancestral Mansion & National Park to “train.”  One of ‘em (Banshee – I’ll get to him later) learns to fly with the power of his own voice; another one (Beast – and boy is there a lot to complain about with him!) learns to run while barefoot.  Another one (Havok) learns to concentrate his energy powers with a device that Beast works up in his spare time, and Magneto finds out he can still remember his mom and cry about it. 
The whole thing is almost like a montage, and we are given to understand that quite a lot has been going on at Casa Xavier so that when push comes to shove the young heroes might finally be capable of facing up to and defeating Shaw and his cohort.  But then at the end of this sequence one of the characters casually mentions all the work they’ve done “this past week.”

This “past week?”  Again . . . WTF?!?  Does time move differently in Xavier’s 100 Acre Home? 

(And speaking of that . . . how is it these dudes are living in a 500,000 square foot castle and there isn’t a single goddamned servant around to maintain it or the estate?  How the hell does that work?)

The Bad Characters

These are minor points, but I figured I’d give ‘em at least a minor rant.

(1)  Did we have to see Storm the first time Xavier uses Cerebro?  It is clearly Storm, she is a young black girl, a mutant, with white hair – you don’t see too many of them around.  But that would mean Storm is about 55 years old when we first see her in X-Men and if there is one thing I remember for certain about that movie it is that Halle Berry wasn’t playing a 55 year old.

(2)  What the hell did they do to Banshee?  Banshee has always been considered a B-lister but he used to be one of my favorites (until they killed him off; I think he is still dead, but that changes all the time in comic book world and I don’t keep up enough to be certain).  The thing about Banshee is that he was Irish.  He had this great brogue and as an older character had a really good backstory.

Now, it is pretty clear they wanted someone young for the role in this movie, but did it have to be just another bland American teen?  Couldn’t they at least have kept the character Irish?  It would at least explain how this idiot teenager, when asked what he wanted to be called, came up with the name “Banshee” in the first place.  (In perhaps the clumsiest bit of exposition in the movie one of the other characters immediately asks him:  “Why do you want to be named after a wailing spirit of the dead?” thereby clearly signaling that the people who made this movie obviously assume the movie audience is too ignorant to know what a “Banshee” is.)

Beast – the Worst Offender

Lord, help me, where do I even begin to explain all that is unholy about the character of Hank “Beast” McCoy?

We first meet Hank McCoy working as the resident super-scientist in Oliver Platt’s little CIA fiefdom.  Professor Xavier, reading McCoy’s mind, learns that he is a fellow mutant and immediately “outs” him to Oliver Platt – apparently just because Professor X is a dick.  (Remember, he knew McCoy was a mutant because he read McCoy’s mind.  So he also would have known that McCoy was embarrassed about that fact and was concealing it from his employers, but Professor X just doesn’t give a shit.)

And what great power does McCoy have?  The power to have opposable thumbs on his feet.  Goaded by Professor X, McCoy takes off his shoes, does a back-flip, and ends up hanging by his hand-feet from a model of a plane that is suspended from the ceiling of his science lab for some unknowable reason.  Inexplicably, this really impresses Mystique, who spends most of her screen time not in her blue skinned/red haired/yellow-eyed “natural” form but as cute blonde Jennifer Lawrence.  “You’re amazing,” she tells McCoy, and it is clear that if the two of them were only alone she’d be boning him already.

Really?  This guy is “amazing”?  Let’s remember . . . Mystique can change shape into any person she wishes, male or female, tall, short, thin, fat, young, old.  She can shape her body into clothes and accessories.  When she meets McCoy she is accompanied by Magneto (who can control all metal, stop bullets, and who very nearly held back a nuclear submarine with the power of his mind) and Charles Xavier (who can read minds, control thoughts, plant mental hallucinations, hold mental conversations, and stop people in their tracks cold), and yet what really impresses Mystique is the ability to hang by one’s toes?  Color my disbelief unsuspended.

But it gets worse . . .    During the course of the movie, McCoy proves his status as resident super-scientist by converting a radar antenna into a transmitter that can amplify brain waves so that Xavier’s telepathy can reach out and find other mutants.  Keep in mind that McCoy just met Xavier and that prior to this meeting he had no idea that telepathy even existed.  So McCoy basically had to invent a whole new scientific field to pull off this little trick, and he still managed to do that in what must’ve only been a few hours because all the while he is doing this Sebastian Shaw and Co. are still cruising under the arctic ice in their dinky little submarine.

Next, McCoy requests a sample of Mystique’s blood, because he hopes to use its properties to engineer a serum that will eliminate the physical distinctions their mutations mark them with (her skin coloring, his opposable big toe).  So in addition to being the world’s only expert on telepathy enhancement, he apparently is also a certified expert on cellular biology and genetic engineering.

Then McCoy invents some kind of focusing device that Havok can wear on his chest to help him direct his energy bursts.  Just as with Professor X’s telepathy, Hank would never have seen anything like Havok’s abilities before but no worries! Hank can figure this stuff out and whip up something in no time flat.

Later, when the gang is getting ready to board a supersonic jet to take them to stop the Missile Crisis and one of the group asks McCoy if he can fly the thing McCoy replies:  “Of course I can.  I designed it.”  So he also is an aeronautics and engineering genius, who owns a pilot license.  And did I mention this guy is about 20 years old?

(You know, I’ve seen this guy’s real mutant power before, in other horribly written work:  it is called deus ex machina, the power to solve seemingly inextricable problems suddenly with the contrived and unexpected intervention of whatever new ability is necessary to move the story along.)

* * *

Oh yeah, and here is a good place to complain about another stupid minor plot hole.  In order to give the film its visual cachet, some reason must be provided to get the X-Men into costume.  So immediately before the big final confrontation between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, the X-Men get uniforms that Hank also has had time to make for them.  “Do we really have to wear these?” someone asks, and Professor X dickishly replies “Well, given that none of our powers allow us to withstand several g’s of pressure or render us bullet-proof, I think we’d better suit up.”

Of course, that whole “bullet-proof” thing goes right out the window 30 minutes later when Professor X takes a bullet to the spine and loses his ability to ever walk again.  Thanks, Hank, you friggin’ idiot.

* * *

Let me see, what else is wrong about Hank McCoy?  How about the fact that, in a desperate attempt to make McCoy’s hand-feet useful for something other than hanging by his toes, the movie squeezes in a scene where Professor X goads McCoy into running barefoot and somehow McCoy’s foot-thumbs allow him to run at super-speed.

Yeah, that sounds about right.  God knows, whenever I’m running and I start to feel a little winded I never think, “Boy I wish my lungs were in better shape, or that I could move my legs faster.”  Instead it is always, “Man, if I just had thumbs on my feet nobody could stop me!”  If anyone can tell me how having foot-hands helps you run faster, I’d really like to hear that explanation.

Oh, God, and then there is McCoy’s attempt to cure his horrible disfigurement by injecting himself with that serum he made out of Mystique’s blood.  “It behooves me to tell you,” he says to Mystique (seriously, he uses the word “behooves”), “that even if we stop the crisis and save the world, they will never think us beautiful.  Not with your blue skin and my feet.”

Uh, Hank?  Little suggestion?  All you have to do is not wear friggin’ flip-flops, you frickin’ idiot!  (Seriously, the dude walks around in shoes all the time and nobody ever notices his weird hand-feet.  I can’t believe this bugs him as much as it does).  But it gets worse.

“This won’t affect our abilities?” asks Mystique.  No, Hank tells her, it won’t affect their abilities, it will just correct their physical abnormalities.

Again, Hank?  Little clue?  Your ability is that you have opposable thumbs on your feet!  If you get rid of those opposable foot-thumbs, what the hell kind of “ability” do you have left?  What the hell sense does any of what you just said make, you dumb goober?

* * *  

And I'm not going to even discuss all the other dangling storylines that the movie never addresses.  What did happen to Charles's parents?  Charles mentions having servants, briefly, at the very beginning of the film -- where are they?  How come Havok was locked up in jail when they met him?  Was there any reason to show Hank's inexplicable ability to run at super-speed while barefoot when the movie never references this again? And on, and on, and on.

Yeah, I’m not what you would call “conflicted” about whether this is a good movie.

POSTSCRIPT:  In writing this thing up, I noticed a couple of times where I had mistyped “Magneto,” inadvertently switching the “n” and the “e.”  But have you seen his red-and-purple color scheme at the end of the movie?  I think I’ll just give in -- from now on I'm calling that dude “Magento.”


  1. Nice review. Origin of the mutants? http://mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/194.htm

  2. The movie was a blast, and I absolutely loved it. Yes, there were some silly moments, but I think the movie was so strong overall that they could be forgiven. And yes, there were a few continuity problems, but if you followed comics with as much passion as you claim, then you would know that the Marvel universe is full of continuity issues and discrepancies. But I guess we always look at our past through rose-colored glasses.

  3. You're right about every single plot hole you point out, of course. I enjoyed the film tremendously all the same. The strength of the acting, for one: Michael Fassbender was very good. Ultimately I don't think the plot holes you focused on derailed the film (there are very good films with shakier plots).

  4. @Jerry --

    Yeah, I know a good deal about all the continuity problems over at Marvel (especially w/the X-Men and all of their time-traveling "potential futures" hijinks). But most big discrepancies are between different stories; when a single story has a big internal discrepancy that isn't because of the nature of the genre, that is just bad storytelling.

    I once heard Simon Pegg expound on something he called "movie logic." This is the sort of thing that passes you right by when you are watching a film, because you're just into the story. It isn't until you leave the theater and you start thinking about it when you go: "Hang on a second. That didn't make a lick of sense!"

    But I'm good with "movie logic" because, by definition, it is something that doesn't remove you from the story -- you don't even recognize there is a problem until later.

    I do have a problem with movies that are constantly hitting you with things that make no sense whatsoever and demanding that you just go with it because "it's a comic book movie," or "it's just a stupid comedy," or "its a supernatural thriller with like, magic and stuff." When you constantly find yourself trying to rationalize things that make no sense (Hank McCoy's barefoot running) just so you can continue to enjoy the movie then you are doing the work that the writer and director should have done.

    @Athelstan . . . obviously, the little review here was intended to be funny, and so I probably went overboard in attacking the movie just for what exaggeration gives to humor. Like I said earlier, I really did like the look of the thing and I won't go so far as to say that my $8 admission price was a waste of money. But, still . . . man! there are a lot of problems with that story.

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  6. @ Swellsman

    Absolutely loved your review. For me X-Men:First Class was truly a cringeworthy experience. Did not enjoy it at all, it was such an absurd movie and you covered it beautifully in your review. Thanks.

    As an avid comic book collector of 6,000 + comics with most of the X-Men books from the 60's, 70's, 80's & 90's, I'm constantly amazed at how easily some people dismiss the comic book mythos in favor of this alternate re-imagining with muddled characterization, convoluted timelines and NOT a hint of MARVEL continuity.

    I don't mind new story lines but one would expect the film makers to at least provide familiar aesthetics - not just the countryside, how about some decent costumes, some genuine continuity and most importantly a good solid narrative that makes sense.

    I guess at the end of the day most people aren't familiar with the comic books and will accept anything Fox Abattoirs throws up on screen.

  7. loved the comics...loved the first two x men movies too, but this sucked bad. can't believe how many people like it. bad taste...it must be a mutation and loads of you are affected!

  8. I enjoyed this review a lot more than watching the movie, that's for sure.