by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial comic-to-movie-screen adaptations is without question Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic Watchmen. To many comic book aficionados, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s stunning DC Comics graphic novel was considered un-filmable by many who have poured over the blood drenched pages. I have to admit that I fell into the camp that didn’t want to see Watchmen in movie theaters but I was left speechless when I saw the rhythmic trailer in the summer of 2008. Many film geeks consider Snyder a visual director who can’t properly handle a narrative, something that the graphic novel thrives on. So, did the un-filmable turn out to be filmable? For the most part, yes, Snyder took great care in bringing this incredible tale to the big screen, pining over the smallest details on every single page right down to the smallest brushstroke of color. It was gripping, philosophical, jarring, and gorgeous all in the same breath but what it truly lacked was accessibility. I attended the midnight showing of Watchmen with a group of my friends, several who had never read the graphic novel. I was so excited to have them see this movie but when we emerged after two hours and forty minutes, they were less than impressed. They didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess you have to read the comic to really get inside this one.
Without giving too much away about Watchmen, I’ll stick to the bare basics. Watchmen takes us to an alternate 1985, where the world is used to superheroes leaping across the rooftops of buildings and intervening with criminals of all sorts. Superheroes have been a part of daily life since 1938, when a small group of masked avengers known as the ‘Minutemen’ formed an alliance and started fighting crime. As the ‘Minutemen’ began to age, a new generation of crime fighters emerged called the ‘Watchmen’, a new fraternity that ultimately was outlawed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, used superheroes to win the war in Vietnam, which has led to multiple re-elections into the 80s. He primarily used the deadly Dr. Manhattan (Played by Billy Crudup), a real-life “Superman” who has gained incredible powers through an unfortunate accident and is now considered a living, breathing, and glowing government weapon. Watchmen begins with the aging hero The Comedian/Edward Blake (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) getting confronted in his apartment by an unknown assailant and being brutally murdered. The police wave the murder off as just a disgruntled old villain that came back to take revenge on The Comedian but masked vigilante Rorschach (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to prowl the streets even though superheroes are banned, suspects that there may be a bigger plot to wipe out former masks. Rorschach seeks out his old partner Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Played by Patrick Wilson) and fills him in on his theory. Dan disregards Rorschach but begins warning other former heroes as a precaution. To make matters worse, the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war.
There was no way for Snyder to bring Watchmen to the big screen without pissing off at least one or two fans. Along with his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, the crew makes a massive oops by tinkering with the grand finale that did send this fanboy into a tizzy. I was so disappointed that the ending was reworked, taking me a few days after seeing it to really get over my resentment. But then I got to thinking, “Well, if they would have kept the original ending, the film would have been infinitely longer than it already was”. Another aspect that outraged me about Watchmen was the fact that Snyder clipped out the comic-within-the-comic interludes that were found in the comic books. He did okay by releasing a companion DVD that told the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter but I desperately wanted this in the film itself. Once again, I understood that this would have added another half-hour or so to the runtime but I guess I would have sat through a five hour long interpretation of Watchmen if it was available. Don’t let these complaints fool you, I still loved this movie and it did live up to my expectations, which were huge, mind you. I thought there were several moments that were jaw-dropping, the coolest being the opening fight sequence that leads in to one of the most incredible opening credit sequences ever put on film. It has to be seen to be believed. If you have seen the film, even the most disgusted fanboy has to admit it was a spectacular and stirring moment for all.
While Watchmen does have some of Snyder’s trademark slow-motion-into-sped-up fight sequences, the film is interested more in the shattered American Dream and what it takes to bring about peace. Each hero in Watchmen has their own code for how the deal with crime, some believing that “dogs should be put down” while others think they should be turned over to the proper authorities. In the old days, the line between good and evil was as clear as day for the ‘Minutemen’, something the remaining members of that retired group look back on fondly. In the “present day” of Watchmen, things are not so black and white. While Watchmen is a superhero movie, it lacks an arch villain, at least one that really plagues each mask through the lengthy runtime. It is society itself that the group grapples with. Are the “good” citizens worth saving or should we just give in to a war that will ultimately consume us all? Watchmen takes a scary detour when Snyder pulls back the curtain on the Nixon administration, further hinting that we may not be able to trust our leaders in the face of annihilation. They may hand us over to a fiery death just to make peace, or at least fight back against the threat, or simply to save their skins. Each time I watch Watchmen, I still get chills when one of Nixon’s advisors tells him that if nuclear war occurs, the whole east coast will be wiped out and the winds will carry the radiation to New Mexico. Middle America will be okay, which is good news, all things considering. Tell me that is not powerful stuff.
Watchmen has been criticized for some of the performances that make up this mound of ideas. The standout is by far Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach, a fedora-wearing bad ass who growls through his oily mask as he dispatches criminals in the most gruesome of ways. We see a good majority of the story through his ink blotches as he asks us if pedophiles, rapists, and serial killers should really be put behind bars. His simple answer is no but wait until he spouts of the complicated one. He will turn you to ice. Then we have Crudup’s disconnected Dr. Manhattan, a glowing God who single handedly wins Vietnam in about a week. Much of his character is CGI but his distant voice is what truly resonates. Malin Akerman shows up as Laurie Juspeczky/Silk Specter II, a leggy avenger who longs for the affection of her boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Wilson’s Nite Owl II is appropriately lost, a flabby has-been who hides behind cartoonish spectacles and searches for an excuse to put on his old armor. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a knock-out as the slimy Comedian, a man who has made some poor choices in his life, laughed at human suffering, and vomited at the American Dream, all while firing his shotgun randomly into a disgruntled crowd of protestors who howl over the very idea of superheroes doing the job of the police. Also on deck is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a wealthy former-mask who was known for his speed, strength, and smarts. He is considered the intelligent man on the planet and he is a fascinating character, but Snyder brushes over him, which is very disappointing when it comes to the last act twist.
There is almost too much to be said about Watchmen and it truly is a difficult film to review because there is so much going on within it. There are so many ideas swirling around inside it that we almost loose focus of what the film is actually trying to convey, which is a bit disappointing. The big question here is what it takes to gain peace, but that is just one slice of the pie. I will say that at almost three hours, the film never has a dull moment. There is plenty of action, gore, and sex to keep the younger males busy while Snyder slyly whispers bigger questions into the ear of those willing to look closer. Watchmen also forces conservatism and liberalism to jump into the ring to see who will ultimately triumph. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who trumps the other. While it is impossible for me to cover all the ground that Watchmen covers in this review, I will finish by saying that I think Watchmen is a beautifully ornate study of the superhero. It is well spoken and hypnotic but also a bit bloated, but it still holds your attention throughout the entire ride. I also advise that you read the graphic novel before approaching the film because some of the smaller touches will make more sense. Not perfect but certainly very good, in my opinion, Watchmen stands as one of the best superhero movies out there, with tons of layers to peel back and explore for years to come.
Watchmen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sucker Punch (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?
Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.
I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.
While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”
Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.
The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.
Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!). It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!
While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.
Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.
If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.
What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.
While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A
Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Green Hornet (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’ll admit that I was itching to see The Green Hornet the second I heard the buzz (pun intended) about it. I have vague memories of catching the short lived 1966 television series with martial arts legend Bruce Lee as the ass kicking sidekick Kato and Van Williams as the Green Hornet himself Britt Reid. I remember that old theme that still every once and a great while makes its way into pop-culture, whether it is sampled in rap songs or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I remember those masked avengers riding around in their tricked out Black Beauty. In fact, I think I was drawn to it because of the similarities to Batman. They both feature a masked millionaire and his sidekick who has come from nothing. They ride around in cool cars. They fight crime in really cool outfits (Although, if GQ ever did a best-dressed superhero list, I think the Green Hornet and Kato may take it from the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.). But mostly, they were vigilantes that operated outside of the law. And it was precisely the anti-hero set up that lured me in. Hell, Val Williams and Bruce Lee even had cameos in the popular Adam West Batman television show. While I’m too young to be overly familiar with where the Green Hornet got his start, which was a radio show from the 1930s, I can still hold on to the hope that the film has had some form of respect for him and stayed true to his origins.
Enter the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also penned the hilarious coming of age story Superbad and whimsical director Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Science of Sleep fame. Intrigued yet? You should be. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Green Hornet and Kato, there is still the promise of some truly unique visuals and some stinging humor right? You bet there is, and there is also some bone crunching action, lively car chases, eccentric villains, smoking hot secretaries, really cool cars, and a painfully hilarious cameo from James Franco. Somewhere in there, there’s the plot of playboy Britt Reid (Played by Rogen), the–What else?–slacker son of a newspaper publisher who takes over The Daily Sentinel in the wake of his father’s mysterious death. On the seedier side of town, a murderous villain Chudnofsky (Played by the brilliant Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), who looks like a super villain from the seventies, is slowly trying to control all the crime in gangland Los Angeles. The day after his father’s funeral, Britt wakes up to his morning coffee and to his horror, his coffee is dreadful. Plus, it lacks the elegant and decorative leaf that usually adorns the top. Britt storms through the estate looking for the person who usually makes his morning coffee. That person, he discovers, is Kato (Played by a seriously good Jay Chou), who is also his father’s mechanic. After a night of drunken shenanigans, Britt and Kato decide they are going to become masked vigilantes and take on crime throughout the city. Then the Looney Tunes meets 300 style action kicks into high gear.
By this point, be it from reading what I have described to you or seeing the energetic trailers, you know if this is the type of film for you. If you’re a fan of Rogen’s haw-haw stoner humor or a superhero aficionado, you were probably already in line and have already seen The Green Hornet. If you’re not a fan of either, I can’t really do much to convince you to see it. I suffer from my own fanboy demons, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see it opening weekend. Now, I’ll also admit I walked out of the theater with a big grin slapped across my face. The film is cartoonish mayhem at it’s absolute finest. And Gondry can’t resist spicing the film up with his trademark surreal flare. The action scenes are inspired, resembling something out of a video game (Kato hones in on all of the baddies weapons that they are wielding). Rogen never snaps out of his along-for-the-ride shtick and some will find that a hard hurdle to jump over. But it’s Chou’s Kato who’s the real star of the film and even through broken English; you can’t help but love him. Whether he is kicking and punching through countless hoards of Chudnofsky’s henchmen or whipping up countless Black Beauties, Chou is always entrancing. And what about Oscar winner Waltz? Well he seems to be lapping up his new career in Hollywood with demented merriment. I’ll tell you this much about his character, just wait until the climatic showdown. He’ll have you laughing and gripping the edge of your seat. And we can’t forget to mention Cameron Diaz, who seemed to be a last minute addition to make the fanboys drool. She isn’t given much to do but fill Reid and Kato in on some of the criminal activity that is taking place in LA. And how does Rogen fare as a superhero? He pulls it off just fine, even if Chou is the real action star here. Rogen mostly falls back on spewing out silly one-liners and hiding behind Kato. Don’t let that fool you, as Rogen does get his chance to play the hero in a show stopping fight scene at the climax. I’ll confess that it is welcome in a genre that has become dominated by brooding heroes who take themselves a little too seriously. But then again, it’s what we have pushed for isn’t it? Heroes that are more emotionally complex, solemn, and that operate within the world we are familiar with. But The Green Hornet’s main objective is to throw all of that out the window and invite us to just have a campy good time.
Every party has its moments where the fun lags and The Green Hornet does suffer from a few lagging moments. The plot of the film is uneven at points and the more twists that they try to throw into the mix, the more cluttered the plot actually becomes. The film works better when it stays on the straight and narrow path. The entire movie is played up like a psychedelic madcap comedy and trying to give it more depth than it deserves slightly spoils the fun. The opening of the film doesn’t provide much of a back-story to the relationship between Reid and his father. They simply don’t get along and Reid’s father doesn’t understand him. That’s about all we get we are supposed to just accept it. The film is just under the two-hour mark and it leaves us asking why they didn’t go another ten minutes and make their troubled relationship a little bit meatier. And the 3D? It reeks of an afterthought and I will say that it’s the first 3D movie that actually began to bother my eyes.
Through it all, The Green Hornet works because it seems like everyone in it is having a blast. I had as much fun watching it, as I’m sure they did making it. The fact of the matter is that the Green Hornet is a third string superhero. He always has been and will continue to be. His film does not rank among the best of the superhero genre and I don’t think anyone under the sun expected it to run with Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, or Watchmen. It also certainly does not rank with the worst of them (I’m referring to you Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Wolverine!). I went in with high hopes but, due to some of the seething reviews, I had my doubts. I emerged smiling and completely satisfied. Plus, in these early months of the year where Hollywood dumps all of its crap, don’t expect much in the way of solid entertainment anytime soon. The Green Hornet is the best we will get for a while and after sitting through all the serious award contenders, it was utterly refreshing. The Green Hornet is pure fanboy euphoria. Grade: B
The Green Hornet is now available on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and DVD.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
by Steve Habrat
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.
Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.
Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.
In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.
X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.
This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.
The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A
X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.