Sha­gadelic su­per­mu­tants

This 1960s-set pre­quel is an anachro­nis­tic, bom­bas­tic but amus­ing fan­tasy, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

IT WAS be­gin­ning to look as if the good peo­ple be­hind the X-Men fran­chise were in­tent on im­mo­lat­ing their own mod­er­ately en­gag­ing se­ries. Af­ter all, they did hire Brett Rat­ner – one of those direc­tors whose name has evolved into a pe­jo­ra­tive ad­jec­tive – to di­rect the lobotomised, dis­hon­estly ti­tled, plain Rat­neresque X-Men: The Last Stand.

Well, the stu­dio has made an ef­fort to re­store a de­gree of re­spectabil­ity. It’s hired a mildly vogu­ish di­rec­tor and, fol­low­ing cur­rent prac­tices and pro­ce­dures, dragged the story back to its ori­gins. If there were, dear reader, any way of avoid­ing the dread word “re­boot”, then we would gladly oblige.

Matthew Vaughn, cre­ator of the baf­flingly lauded Kick-Ass, has been handed the mega­phone and like­able young movie stars such as Michael Fass­ben­der, James McAvoy and Jen­nifer Lawrence have been squeezed into the un­flat­ter­ing Ly­cra suits.

We be­gin with an­other wholly in­ap­pro­pri­ate pro­logue set in a con­cen­tra­tion camp: Theodor Adorno may have over­stated the case when he said there could be “no po­etry af­ter Auschwitz”, but we might rea­son­ably have ex­pected a mora­to­rium on su­per­hero ad­ven­tures set in that place. Then, thank good­ness, the film set­tles down to tell a story that rubs up against the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis.

The young Charles Xavier (McAvoy), not quite a pro­fes­sor yet, is teach­ing some sort of quasi-sci­en­tific mumbo jumbo at Ox­ford. Eric Lehn­sh­err (Fass­ben­der), whose skill in ma­nip­u­lat­ing met­als will later at­tract the moniker Mag­neto, is tour­ing the world in search of fugi­tive, still mid­dle-aged Nazis. All sig­nif­i­cant re­main­ing X-per­sons later turn up in un­fa­mil­iar youth­ful in­car­na­tions.

Dreamed up by Bryan Singer, who di­rected the first two films, the sce­nario of­fers a great deal of scope for stylis­tic flour­ishes and know­ing al­lu­sions, not to men­tion a ver­i­ta­ble avalanche of pre­pos­ter­ous anachro­nisms.

Some­times dal­ly­ing in Rat Pack ter­ri­tory (we briefly visit Las Ve­gas in its pre-theme park pomp) and else­where nod­ding to­wards James Bond (Kevin Ba­con’s vil­lain op­er­ates from a funky sub­ma­rine), the film builds upon our era’s weird love af­fair with the early 1960s and strains that af­fec­tion close to break­ing point. Mad Men’s Jan­uary Jones, more wooden than a board­room drinks cabi­net, turns up to re­mind us of the craze’s prin­ci­pal inspiration.

In some­what per­func­tory fash­ion, the nar­ra­tive nudges Eric and Charles to­wards a more than usu­ally se­cre­tive wing of the CIA. Re­cruit­ing other young mu­tants to their cause, the im­pro­vised team sets out to stop evil Dr Ba­con, a for­mer Nazi who re­fuses to age, from re­duc­ing the planet to qui­es­cent rub­ble.

Here’s the thing. Yes, the pic­ture’s hold on the epoch is very shaky in­deed. Xavier uses the word “groovy” – not prop­erly in fash­ion for a year or two af­ter the events de­tailed – on at least two oc­ca­sions. In one silly mo­ment, a young X-Man ac­tu­ally de­scribes an­other mu­tant’s cos­tume as “bad-ass”. Un­in­ter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions are dis­missed with a wildly anachro­nis­tic “what­ever”.

Still, the melange of slim-suits, cigaret­ting vil­lains and Cold War para­noia is amus­ingly main­tained through­out First Class’s di­vert­ing open­ing act.

The prob­lems set in when the film be­comes X-Men Ba­bies. There are only so many times you can sur­prise us by re­veal­ing that this ap­par­ently or­di­nary chap or that seem­ingly com­mon­place chick has the abil­ity to sprout wings, call up ty­phoons or shoot laser beams from fin­ger­nails. By the time we have made our way to that con­fla­gra­tion in the Caribbean, X-Men: First Class – jokes now nudged aside by loom­ing an­ni­hi­la­tion – looks and sounds like a dozen other over­staffed, overly noisy su­per­hero ef­forts.

In truth, the film is a very con­ven­tional sum­mer pot­boiler repack­aged in rea­son­ably pretty, mod­er­ately crisp wrap­ping pa­per. In short, not quite groovy enough.

irish­times.com/cul­ture

Feelin’ groovy? Jan­uary Jones and Kevin Ba­con in X-Men: First Class

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