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.
I have not been bashful about my unbridled, slobbering passion when it comes to Captain America: The First Avenger. My expectations for this Marvel adaptation are sky-high, and these three new character posters for the film have only reinforced that enthusiasm. The images are the best looks we’ve had so far of Captain America, The Red Skull, and Sharon Carter. I would love to see character posters for Bucky and Dum Dum Dugan as well, but I’m sure they’ll be forthcoming. Click on the thumbnails for glorious hi-res versions! Captain America is in theaters on July 22 (Fuck you, Michael Bay, for stealing the July 4 release date for your shitty Transformers sequel!).
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…
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.