May 8, 2014

X-Men First Class: Will Days of Future Past live up to it?

Whether you're a diehard who never lost the faith or a newcomer to the X-Men film franchise, it's pretty likely that the stunt they pulled with X-Men First Class caught your attention one way or another. Set in 1962, it's visually catchy, by which I mean the costumes and the setting will grab you even in the 30 second TV spot. It's no Mad Men but the styles are a ton of fun. And if the costumes and hairstyles didn't grab you maybe working the Cuban missile crisis into the mix did? Yeah, them be nukes. It was a brave comeback and it worked.

X-Men First Class was an impressive return for the series that had been greatly dwindling in the quality of its characters, story, writing, even aesthetic with the travesty that was Origins: Wolverine or The Wolverine, whichever the hell one I saw, don't ask me. Even X-Men: The Last Stand saw the beginning of a decline for the X-Men series (Don't believe me? Check out how the IMDB ratings dropped between films or the footnote below*). Fans responded to a decline with their votes, but X-Men First Class was an entirely different case. It has the highest IMDB rating of the series at 7.8, which is really, really high, considering films among the top 250 of all time (as voted by users) only have an 8.0. I guess users are harsh critics (the highest rating on all of IMDB is Shawshank Redemption at a mere 9.2 rating. Nothing close to 10 exists).

What makes it good? What saved the franchise? Well I already mentioned the visuals, and I'm glad that finally in the sci-fi/fantasy film world someone caught on that when we want striking visuals we don't mean CGI anymore, we're not impressed by that anymore. Art is character-driven these days and not only did X-Men dress up their characters is stunning 60s styles, they also sketched out their stories and made those much more central, I thought, than the plot, which was fine but not great. The cast also helped. Put Jennifer Lawrence in anything these days and she can carry the whole show herself, but First Class didn't even need her; Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy held their own plenty. And including January Jones in anything personally makes me very, very happy. So a good looking cast.

Now that's not to say First Class was perfect. For one thing, I don't feel the need to ever watch it a second time. I feel like the character-driven nature was a nice turn but it still managed to be drowned out a little bit by the action which they of course had to deliver, otherwise it wouldn't be a superhero film. It's just that Kevin Bacon's villain was very boring, with the exception of the flashbacks to Nazi Germany. It couldn't really be helped. I can't think of a better story for them to have told. The heart of it was where it needed to be: on Xavier's loss of his friend Erik/Magneto, and the schism between mutants and humanity, and between the X-Men and Magneto's clan.

Probably the strongest story managed to be Raven/Mystique's, which is impressive. There's a psychological sketch going on there that does get buried by the action a little bit but it pervaded the film and gave her actions motivation. Actually I think her reasons for joining Magneto were much better fleshed out than Magneto's motivations for turning against Xavier. Sure, we know he's been through a lot and life has been hard for him, poor Fassbender, but it's easy to forget all that with the training montages in the middle and the lovey dovey dialogues he has with McAvoy. He doesn't seem dark or tortured during the middle third of the movie, which is nice — there's little I love more than a compassionate relationship for a character who is suffering and really needs it — but then when he goes all evil it seems rather sudden.

Nitpicking aside, both the rating and the strong points I've identified make it clear that X-Men First Class was a revival. Now what will happen when worlds collide, past and future, old cast and new cast? Well for one thing you get a SUPERCAST! Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Jackman, Paquin, Berry, McKellen, Stewart, holy crap, who's excited? Not to mention Peter Dinklage and Ellen Page. What are they thinking? They're gonna give us all heart attacks. But as we learned with Valentine's Day and Movie 43, it really doesn't matter how many A listers you throw in there, if it's nothing but a gimmick, it's not going to do anything for the quality if there's no quality there. Yikes. Now I'm starting to worry. Maybe too many celebrities is a sign of doom.

So here's the trailer.

It looks funny. Big. Epic. I'm hoping there will be an emphasis on characters over action in this one but seeing Wolverine as the team leader has me pretty worried. There was so much they could have done with that character, and instead they gave us two mindless action flicks that weren't worth watching. I'm not done lamenting that. And to be honest they've always had a super cast to work with, this is nothing new, so if they don't use that talent properly, we may be in for yet another failure.

So what do you think will happen when the old series collides with the new? First Class was a damn good start to a reboot but there may be some cause for concern that Days of Future Past is going to slide into old bad habits. Too much action and too many one liners. Bad writing. Underdeveloped characters that had oh so much potential. Are you afraid or are you rejoicing? Leave me a comment and let me know. Maybe ease my fears a little bit.

*What kind of blogger would I be if I made you do your own research? Here's the footnote: X-Men (2000) has an IMDB rating of 7.4, X2 (2003) has 7.5, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) sunk to a 6.8, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) has a 6.8, and The Wolverine (2013) has a 6.8. That's actually a fairly good rating (6.8), despite that the Wolverine movie I saw was crap, but the point is there was a decline. The point is, X-Men First Class is way back at up 7.8, and the new enterprise managed after many failures to rekindle its original quality.

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