In March of 2005, director Matthew Vaughn was hard at work preparing to direct the conclusion to the X-Men trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, taking over for a departing Bryan Singer. It quickly became clear to him that the pressure from the FOX studio executives to rush the film into production and get it into theaters for the Summer of 2006 to compete against Singer’s Superman Returns was completely unreasonable. There was no way Vaughn could make the film he wanted, so he walked away and FOX slapped together X-3 under the inept helm of uber-hack Brett Ratner. Now, seven years later, Matthew Vaughn has finally made the worthy successor to X-2: X-Men United that he always wanted to. And now that I’ve seen the finished product, it truly makes me sad to think about what X-Men 3 could have been like under the very capable hands of Vaughn, because First Class is a surprising triumph, and might be the best X-Men film of them all.
X-Men: First Class is a wildly ambitious movie that crams a lot of narrative threads into its running time, but it never feels bloated or poorly-paced. It zips along well thanks to a combination of a clearly defined (if a tad goofy) plot by the villains to kickstart the Cuban Missle Crisis and manipulate America and the U.S.S.R. into starting WWIII; and the battle of fundamental beliefs that threaten to tear two friends apart. With its miniskirts, go-go boots, lingerie-clad undercover spies, and secret, swinging nightclubs, the film threatens to careen down a slope of Austin Powers-esque kitsch at times, but quickly rights itself whenever McAvoy and Fassbender are clashing, or learning more about their unique mutant gifts from each other. The action scenes range from quieter Inglourious Basterds-meets-superhero moments, to exhilarating, epic set pieces full of spectacular explosions, and dazzling mutant powers on full display. The flight effects for the characters of Banshee and Angel, in particular, are shot in a visceral style that makes them more convincing than just about any film you’ve ever seen a human being “fly” in.
The meat of the film explores the dichotomy between young mutants Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and Erik Leshner (Michael Fassbender). If you’re familiar with the themes of the X-Men comics, or have seen the previous X-Men films, then you know the drill: Charles takes on the Martin Luther King ideology of tolerance and peaceful coexistence with humanity, while Erik embodies the more radical Malcolm X approach of casting off the shackles of human oppression and wearing the mutant badge with pride. The early part of the film cuts back and forth between Erik and Charles in their formative years; Charles lives in a posh Westchester mansion as a boy and there he befriends a young shape-shifting girl named Raven, who broke in to steal food. Meanwhile, Vaughn faithfully re-creates the opening shots of the original X-Men film, which finds young Erik violently separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, then introduces us to the “big bad” of the film, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a welcome change of pace from his usual affable characters), who is posing as a Nazi doctor to discover mutant recruits for his world-domination-seeking Hellfire Club. In a horrific sequence, Shaw murders Erik’s mother after he fails to demonstrate his metal-controlling powers by making a coin move, then gleefully celebrates as the grief triggers a screaming, metal-rending episode.
Vaughn deftly shows us the stark contrast between the two future enemies as we see Charles (with Raven in tow, now posing as Charles’ sister) living a cushy existence, studying genetics in the Oxford halls by day and using his charm to pick up women in pubs by night. Leshner, in the interim, has become a revenge-obsessed Nazi Hunter travelling the world to kill the Concentration camp monsters that scarred him for life, and to find his ultimate target – Sebastian Shaw. Fassbender’s screen presence in these Nazi-killing sequences is nothing short of astonishing, filled with quiet menace and simmering rage. These moments are so effective, that I could easily sit through an entire two-hour movie of Erik Leshner dispatching Nazis in various brutal and creative ways. (I swear my fillings were aching after watching one of the encounters). It’s obvious to anyone with eyes at this point why Fassbender is quickly becoming a superstar. McAvoy, while not having as meaty a role as Fassbender, is still excellent in his own right as a young, idealistic Xavier who is genuinely fascinated my genetic mutation. He turns in a very nuanced performance as the future Professor X, coming across as charming, enthusiastic, and at many points, arrogant. His initial encounters with Leshner as their friendship grows and they bond over their abilities are a joy to watch, which makes the inevitable tragedy of what is to come even more powerful.
McAvoy and Fassbender are so mesmerizing on-screen, and their story is so compelling, that it’s easy to overlook some of the film’s flaws, like the casting of the mutant recruits and the secondary baddies of Shaw’s Hellfire Club. These youngsters (with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence) are bland, nondescript newcomers in their 20’s who offer little in the acting department, and basically serve as pawns in the battle sequences. In addition, January Jones continues to be one of the worst working actresses in Hollywood. The Emma Frost of the comics is a haughty British vamp that relishes in ice-queen wickedness, but with Jones’ vacant, bored delivery, she comes across as Shaw’s doped-up, high-class prostitute.
The supporting cast, led by a lively (and sexy) Rose Byrne as CIA liaison Moira McTaggert, also boasts veteran presence Oliver Platt as the head of the CIA’s mutant division, About a Boy‘s grown-up child star Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (a genius teen scientist with ape-like feet and enhanced reflexes), and the smoldering Jennifer Lawrence as the teen Raven/Mystique. They all lend life to the proceedings with their more than capable performances. One of the film’s more interesting facets is a psuedo-love triangle between Raven, McCoy, and Leshner. Raven is immediately smitten with McCoy, and he promises to help “cure” her blue-skinned, yellow-eyed appearance with a serum that he is developing to rid himself of his over-sized peds. Leshner enters the picture by telling Raven that she should never be ashamed of who she is; that she should embrace the power and beauty she holds in her true form. It’s an intriguing little element of the screenplay that helps flesh out all three characters. Terrific cameos by longtime character actor favorites like Ray Wise, Michael Ironsides,Glenn Morshower, Rade Serbedzija, and James Remar, round out the very solid cast.
In a more forgiving world, X-Men: First Class would be the franchise rejuvenator the X-Men saga desperately needs, but the acrid stench and bitter taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: The Last Stand are likely too fresh in the movie-going public’s senses to truly make this a Summer blockbuster on the level of the upcoming Harry Potter finale. Still, it’s a fantastic mash-up of Superheroes, James Bond, and a story of two men whose friendship is torn apart by ideology.
A while back, I wrote an article titled Top Ten Good Things About The Star Wars Prequels in which I attempted to disprove the notion that the universally loathed Episodes I-III had absolutely no redeeming qualities. It was fairly well-received, so I began to think about other much-maligned movie franchises that might make for suitable sequels to the piece. A friend suggested that I should try mining the dank, black coal caves of the two painfully mediocre Fantastic Four films for some valuable cinematic gems. Now, most Marvel Comics fans agree that Fantastic Four (2005) and the slightly better Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) leave a lot to be desired (many will tell you, quite bluntly, that they outright suck giant rhino balls). These duds feature unimaginative direction by Tim Story, a lack of epic scope, weak action scenes, a lousy latex Thing costume, the infamous “Galactus Cloud”, and a horribly mis-cast Julian McMahon as a weaselly business tycoon version of Dr. Doom. Yet, despite all of these shortcomings, I managed to dig up a few things – 9 to be precise – that will make you feel like you haven’t completely wasted precious hours of your life watching them. So, without further ado, LaserCola.com presents:
9 Good Things About The Fantastic Four Movies!
9.) Accurate Origin
Although Julian McMahon’s smarmy, Euro-trash, corporate tycoon version of Dr. Doom was lazily shoehorned in; the basic story of how the Fantastic Four received their powers in this film is fairly faithful to the comic book version. Reed Richards, and the brother/sister tandem of Sue and Johnny Storm travel into space to study cosmic radiation on a ship piloted by Ben Grimm. A massive wave of cosmic rays bombard them, they crash-land on Earth, and their strange powers manifest shortly thereafter. Pretty spot-on.
8.) Family Friendly Tone
Children adore and idolize superheroes, but it’s a bit difficult to bring little Johnny and Suzie to the Cineplex these days when The Joker is impaling gangsters on pencils and the films in general are darker and more mature to appeal to the 18-35 male demographic. The FF movies however, are bright, sunny, safe, and — cliché as it may sound — fun for the whole family. There’s a little bit of sexual innuendo here and there (especially with Johnny Storm in the first film), but violence is non-existent, and the most traumatic thing I can recall from either installment is Dr. Doom’s scarred, metallic face.
7.) Michael Chiklis
I could probably write a 1,000-word article about why The Thing should’ve been an entirely CG character, and not a wrinkled, orange foam latex suit. But, since we’re focusing on only the good here, I’ll simply say that Chiklis was absolutely note-perfect casting as the ever-lovin, blue-eyed Thing. Chiklis nailed Ben Grimm’s gruff, no-nonsense, Yancy street attitude, and demonstrated tremendous pathos as a man struggling to hold on to his humanity after being entombed in a shell of orange rock. The scene where Ben calls his wife from a pay phone outside of their former home, and stares longingly up at the window as she recoils in horror from his monstrous appearance, is pretty damned devastating.
6.) Silver Surfer / Human Torch Chase
Whether it was a result of director Tim Story’s inexperience, or crippling budgetary restrictions, the action set pieces in both Fantastic Four films are underwhelming, to say the least. However, the chase sequence between the Human Torch and the Silver Surfer through the steel canyons and subway tunnels of New York, and eventually into outer space — is fun, fast, and exhilarating. ‘Nuff said!
5.) The Fantasticar
Though these films are huge missteps, the production team should be lauded for their efforts to sprinkle them with ancillary characters from the comic books like blind sculptress Alicia Masters, and identifiable places like the Baxter Building. The thing that stands out to me as a nice, (and unexpected) nod to the fans is the inclusion of a version of the flying Fantasticar, the FF’s primary mode of transportation.
Yes, these suits are a bit dull for my tastes – but they’re practical, they make sense in the context of the film, and manage to remain faithful to the classic FF jumpsuit look. As an added bonus, they also afforded the adult audience an eyeful of Jessica Alba’s loin-achingly perfect posterior encased in skin-tight spandex.
3.) Stan Lee as Willie Lumpkin
Stan Lee’s cameos in Marvel Comics films have become fun little cinematic Easter Eggs to hunt for. He’s appeared as various non-speaking characters in the X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man franchises. But in the Fantastic Four films, he got to do something truly unique – play the Fantastic Four’s loveable mail carrier Willie Lumpkin, a character from the Marvel Universe that he actually created!
2.) The Silver Surfer
Performed in both CG motion-capture and in a practical suit by the multi-talented Doug Jones, and voiced by the always awesome Laurence Fishburne, the Silver Surfer was an outstanding page-to-screen translation of an iconic Marvel character. His origin – although unseen – is accurate, as are his appearance and powers. The script also captured the essence of the Surfer’s nobility and his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity from his master, the planet-devouring Galactus.
1. ) Thing/ Human Torch Chemistry
Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans captured the dynamic of these two classic characters perfectly. Their rivalry/friendship is the strongest element of the films, as Chiklis’ tough, take-no-bullshit philosophy clashes brilliantly on-screen with Chris Evans’ brash, hot-headed, skirt-chasing antics. The two actors get to share a healthy amount of screen time bickering endlessly, hurling rapid-fire insults at each other, and playing pranks (such as the power-switching in the photo above), but they also effectively convey the sense of brotherhood and comradery between The Thing and The Torch. In the end, they are family, and that relationship is beautifully defined by Evans, Chiklis, and the crew.
BONUS: Good Things About the Shelved 1994 Roger Corman Fantastic Four Movie!
Just kidding! There’s absolutely nothing good about this…
In 2001, The WB Network aired the pilot episode of Smallville, a TV series that set out to explore the teenage years of Clark Kent before he took up the mantle of Earth’s greatest superhero. The show started off innocuously enough, following the Buffy template by substituting the “demon/vampire of the week” with a “Kryptonite Freak of the week” (usually teenagers at Smallville high with a mutation caused years earlier by the kryptonite meteor shower that occurred during baby Kal-El’s crash-landing). Later, once Clark began to learn of his Kryptonian heritage, the series managed to escape its “Clark and the Scooby Gang solve mysteries” formula and developed into a fairly compelling show.
Then came the endless pining over Lana, copious amounts of “Peach Pit”-esque teen drama at The Talon coffee house, the tedious back-and-forth Lex/Clark interactions, Chloe’s magical laptop/cellphone (which allowed her to access government satellites and open any security door), the loss of the terrific John Schneider as Pa Kent, the move to college, the repeated “T&A” episodes where the female cast members became possessed or brainwashed by mystical artifacts and were compelled to act and dress like complete sluts, the addition of various members of the “Justice League” (dudes in multi-colored hoodies), the departure of Michael Rosenbaum as the show’s long-time primary antagonist, and yet another transition to the offices of the Daily Planet in Metropolis.
Yet despite these glaring flaws, Smallville inexplicably endured — maintaining a small, but loyal following who wouldn’t be dissuaded, hungrily devouring their weekly fix of gooey Kryptonian cheese for a good five seasons longer than this show had any right to run. Somewhere around the 8th or 9th season (I stopped watching regularly somewhere in the college years) Smallville decided to start jamming its runtime with oodles of DC Comics characters in an effort to stay fresh and appease fanboys longing for the show to break it’s hallowed “no tights, no flights” rule. Over the past few seasons, the show has seen iterations of Zatanna, The Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Cyborg, Martian Manhunter, Doomsday, Braniac, Zod, Booster Gold, Silver Banshee, Blue Beetle, Hawkman, Star Girl, Dr. Fate, Supergirl, Bizarro, Black Canary, and yes, even Krypto the Superdog. Ten long years and oodles of DC comic cameos later, Smallville is finally –perhaps mercifully — over.
The two-hour finale encapsulates everything that is wrong with the series — endless 90210 / Dawson’s Creek-influenced angst, introspection, and navel gazing; weak action scenes; cheesy special effects; anticlimactic resolutions to crises; wooden delivery of stilted dialog; and nonsensical, overly convoluted plot threads. We are treated to the juxtaposition of Lois and Clark’s impending nuptials with the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Apokolips, which is hurtling through space on a direct collision course in order to extinguish all life. Yes, that’s right, Smallville turned the entire planet of Apokolips, with its long and storied history in the pages of DC Comics, into nothing more than a giant projectile thrown at the Earth like a kid chucking a rock at a rusty old car window.
What made things even worse was the trademark Smallville feet-dragging, “dramatic build-up to a short and disappointing climax”routine. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but if I was Clark and I saw a gigantic, flame-spewing death world blotting out the sun and causing massive earthquakes, I would immediately stop everything, throw on the Superman costume, fly up to Apokolips, and start punching things. However, since this is Smallville, Clark felt the need to stand around looking angsty in the Daily Planet office listening to the radio with dozens of terrified people, investigate a cell-phone video message left by Tess (Lex’s sister…or his clone…or something equally dumb), share a nauseatingly long and talky goodbye with Lois, fly to the ruins of the Luthor mansion for an even longer and more pointless conversation with a resurrected Lex Luthor, and have a lame, anti-climactic fight with Darkseid (in the body of Lionel Luthor, Lex’s father…don’t even ask).
Finally, after all of that nonsense, we are treated to a scene where Clark goes into some kind of Kryptonian dream-state and sees old clips from the show’s history in some crystals, talks to the ghost of John Schneider, and is then given the blue and red tights by the disembodied voice of Jor-El. This long-awaited, iconic moment that fans had been waiting ten years for falls completely flat, and sadly, is even somewhat laughable. The classic duds turn out to be a leftover costume from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, and Tom Welling — who repeatedly stated that he would never put on the costume –holds true to his word, as we only see close-ups of his head. All full-body shots are rendered in CGI that’s on par with a Syfy Channel original movie. Clark, now revealed to the world as Superman, rescues Air Force One (in a callback to the original 1978 Donner film), and in a hugely un-satisfying moment, simply pushes Apokolips back into space with no resistance. Now, with a limited TV budget, obviously we weren’t going to be treated to epic fight scenes of Superman battling hordes of Darkseid’s Para-Demons, his son Kalibak, or even the Female Furies, but for the Master of the Omega Effect and Lord of the Anti-Life Equation to put up absolutely no fight whatsoever is simply weak.
The Smallville finale actually does end on a high note, but that’s probably due to the soaring, classic John Williams Superman music that underscores the show’s last five minutes more than anything else. In this sequence, we are treated to a flash-forward seven years in the future where Perry White is Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen is snapping photos, Lois is hunting down stories, and Clark is a mild-mannered reporter waiting to leap into action to save the world as the Man of Steel. The final image of the series sees Welling running towards the camera, and pulling his shirt open to reveal the iconic “S” shield as John Williams epic score swells up. It’s a moment that goes a long way to make one forget about the terrible missteps this once-promising series took…but it doesn’t go far enough.
With Thor, Marvel Studios had their work cut out for them. They needed to sell a film about an unlikeable, arrogant Norse God from a shiny cosmic kingdom to a mainstream movie audience whose patience and suspension of disbelief was already beginning to be stretched thin by a glut of capes and high-tech suits of armor crowding the multiplexes. And oh, by the way, the production team also faced the challenge of ensuring Thor fit in the same universe as the more reality-based Iron Man films, while continuing to plant the seeds for the upcoming epic superhero team-up blockbuster, The Avengers in Summer 2012. If it failed to resonate with an audience, all of Marvel’s plans could have come crashing to Earth with the force of the mighty hammer Mjolnir. Fortunately for everyone involved, Thor is a very solid movie — delivering a lighthearted and fun superhero spectacle to kick off the Summer 2011 blockbuster movie season.
Imagine if you will, a fantastic realm born out of the mists of time – a world of legend, filled with mighty warriors brandishing gleaming broadswords forged from magic Unicorn horns. A mystic land where majestic dragons soar over the tallest castles, and horrible minotaurs prowl the passageways of the deepest labyrinths. A place full of wonder and mystery beyond comprehension, where noble knights embark on perilous quests to rescue beautiful virgin maidens from evil wizards…Now imagine a few of your former college stoner pals showing up in this fantastical kingdom with enough weed to satisfy an Allman Brothers concert crowd, while cracking endless dick jokes, and you’ll have a good idea of what Your Highness is all about.
Understandably, that reads like a premise devoid of any appeal beyond dudes who smoke lots of pot or own a ton of Dio and Tenacious D albums. However, the key factor that prevents Your Highness from being a forgettable descent into the muck and mire of vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, is the terrific work of the ensemble cast led by Danny McBride as the bawdy Prince Thadeos, and his dashing knight brother, Prince Fabious, played by recent Oscar nominee James Franco. In the face of absurdities like randy, well-endowed Minotaurs, kinky pedophile wizards, metallic falcons, hooba-smokin’ satyrs, unicorns, cyclopses, and a menagerie of assorted medieval miscreants; McBride, Franco, and especially Natalie Portman as the warrior-Goddess Isabel, embrace the ridiculousness surrounding them – delivering their insane dialogue with sincerity and a complete lack of irony. If you can’t derive a hearty laugh from an Academy award-winning Best actress spouting lines like, “These feelings have burned in my beaver for years” with utter conviction, the charms of Your Highness will be lost on you.
One of the most surprising aspects of Your Highness is how capably it functions as a creative, energetic action/fantasy film. Set pieces like a rip-roaring medieval horse-and-carriage chase, and a final battle with the evil wizard Leezar and his creepy “Mothers” in his sinister, lightning bolt-riddled tower are zippily-paced, well-executed, and even outshine recent action blockbusters like the tedious Clash of the Titans remake, or the utterly lifeless Prince of Persia. This feat is accomplished despite the sophomoric (and mostly improvised script), because Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green and his cast create loveable, fleshed-out characters that you actually care about.
Your Highness takes the most ridiculous elements of fantasy movies like Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, and even the original Clash of the Titans, and stirs in a healthy serving of stoner humor and perversion. The result is a ribald laugh riot that successfully marries Dungeons & Dragons players with the Pineapple Express crowd. Make no mistake, this film is jam-packed with silly, crude, juvenile, toilet humor, and I loved every minute of it. Rest assured, the film isn’t going to garner any attention during Awards season, but for anyone who appreciates swords-and-silliness, it’s destined to become a quotable comedy classic for eons to come.