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“X-Men: First Class” and the Pros and Cons of Today’s Ensemble Action Movie

"X-Men: First Class" and the Pros and Cons of Today's Ensemble Action Movie

On my way to the press screening of “X-Men: First Class” this week, I was reading Claude Brodesser-Akner’s article on “Blockbuster Economics” in the new issue of New York magazine. It’s pretty basic stuff if you know today’s film industry in the slightest, but it was appropriate to peruse and think about ahead of and during such an ensemble-dependent action movie. More than a decade ago, in what I’m certain was my first paid assignment as a film critic, I wrote (rather amateurish and naively, I admit) about the death of the traditional action-hero movie star in a piece for READ magazine (r.i.p.) reviewing the first “X-Men” film, “Mission: Impossible II” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” It addressed the rising interest in Hollywood in ensemble-based action movies as opposed to solo vehicles for guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis and Cruise. Brodesser-Akner now looks similarly at the shift, but more on how money influenced the genre rather than what the protagonistic spread does for the films themselves.

While it’s certainly possible for an overload of major characters, such as what happened with “X-Men: The Last Stand,” part of what I loved about the “X-Men” comics is how teeming in teammates it was/is. Mind you, I got in around 1991, when the group was so big they had divide into two separate factions (and two separate titles), not to mention all the outlying mutant team titles of the era (I assume there are possibly even more now). But I kind of saw it as a soap opera where multiple narratives were going on at the same time and you could focus on and prefer this or that character and maybe have less regard for others. Maybe Robert Altman should have done an “X-Men” movie as his sell-out comic book film instead of “Popeye”? Anyway, at its best moments, mostly early on, “X-Men: First Class” evokes this sense of plentiful plots (including the romantic sort) while also playing with the comics’ mix of camaraderie and disjointedness within the attempt to unify so many characters for team-based missions.

I have to say, I’d actually prefer multiple “X-Men” movies coinciding and intersecting than the “Avengers” film continuity that’s currently going on, partly because the latter’s individual episodes should be able to function on their own and rely on that old-fashioned solo action-hero angle. And in spite of the list I wrote two years ago, I prefer this sort of movie/prequel, which has trumped original plans for a strict Magneto solo “Origins” film as well as most that I had proposed (including this Mystique idea), to the “Wolverine” series kind. But then, again, due to my appreciation for the team dynamic of the X-Men universe, I never in the first place liked how the Wolverine character became the comics’ and then film franchise’s unequaled BIG STAR.

Of course, by the end of “X-Men: First Class,” moviegoers will be demanding that Magneto spin-off, especially if it involves Michael Fassbender continuing his James Bond meets Simon Wiesenthal thing (a favorite scene in an Argentine bar also calls to mind “Inglourious Basterds,” which allows Fassbender to somewhat avenge his own character in that film). But thankfully his Anakin-ish antihero-to-villain arc does not warrant a solo outing. Still, Fassbender is undoubtedly the Hugh Jackman of this prequel, and it should prove to be another step in his own star-making (Brodesser-Akner notes how he’s already made the attempt at a pay leap with the upcoming “Alien” prequel). His Magneto is also the Wolverine of the film right down to the flashbacks of being experimented on and the way he forms a bond with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is clearly the Rogue in this easily paralleled story.

This isn’t just because, like Anna Paquin, Lawrence has already been recognized by the Academy (for only an Oscar nomination, though, not a win), strangely the only one in an ensemble made up of very acclaimed (and at least Golden Globe-nominated) acting talents like James McAvoy, Rose Byrne (who is now, between this, “Insidious” and “Bridesmaids” the best multiplex-friendly actress of the year), Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon. Okay, so the Globe part isn’t so notable since January Jones also was nominated twice, though she’s really not distractingly terrible here, like you’d expect. No, the real link is in the film’s address of a “mutant cure,” reminiscent of the one introduced in “The Last Stand,” and how it relates to both Rogue’s and Mystique’s boy issues. Meanwhile, it is kind of interesting that as Havok, Lucas Till gets to sort of evoke both Cyclops (the character’s younger brother) and Wolverine, who are rivals in the original trilogy, giving him a likely unintended inner-conflict.

Not all of the “First Class” cast is first rate, although just as the stronger talents are at times only as good as the very cheesy script allows it’s mostly in the weak writing of the supporting characters that hinders their remarkableness. As Darwin, Edi Gathegi might as well be portrayed by “Not Another Teen Movie”‘s Deon Richmond and get the X-Man nickname “Token Black Guy” (or, also appropriate: “Red Shirt”) and speak in stupid stereotypical slang while also being cut-to whenever there’s mention of the words “slavery” or a moment for considering the coinciding civil rights movement of the film’s time period. As Angel, Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet), is definitely not hiding any talent comparative to her “modern-day counterpart” (or, original trilogy match), Ben Foster. And while villain Sebastian Shaw’s (Bacon) henchmen aren’t as hokey and badly performed as Magneto’s are in the first film, they’re not really allowed to speak either, which is a plus. Then, there’s Caleb Landry Jones, who I’ve labeled “drunk Ron Weasley.” As Banshee, he’s either brilliant or terrible, I can’t yet tell. And since I haven’t seen him in anything else except his one scene in “No Country for Old Men,” I have little reference for his talent so far.

For the most part, however, the ensemble is very strong for reasons slightly laid out in the New York magazine piece. Most of the actors are relative unknowns, at least in terms of multiplex-marquee-celebrity, because they’re cheaper. But they’re also either new or have been plucked from a pool of actors whose talent is greater than their name recognition, because maybe they’ve been honing craft rather than careers. The biggest name in the movie going into production was definitely Bacon’s, yet even he was never quite a movie star (even with “Flatliners,” he was credited on the poster below his “X-Men: First Class” co-star Platt, who was a real nobody at the time). He’s awesome as a maniacal, world-domination-bent bad guy, even better than his sleazy “Super” villain earlier this year. And I dare say more fun than Ian McKellan’s antagonist of the first three “X-Men” movies.

I kind of believe overblown movie star-dom, at least in the non-contract era, ruins good actors, that is until they go and re-display their talent in a small part in a “Magnolia” or “Dreamgirls” or star in a humbling smaller movie like an “Adaptation” or “The Crossing Guard.” So often, ensemble action movies are a good place for young talent on the rise in more ways than economically. Among the many things “First Class” has in common with J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot is the way it casts great performers who are probably best suited for supporting or ensemble parts anyway. Many of them are more like fledgling character actors or team-player stage-style thespians than the type to be the next Cruise or Willis, let alone Stallone or Schwarzenegger.

Not that it’s that new a concept. Look at what Jerry Bruckheimer did in compiling the ensembles of “Armageddon” and “Con Air” nearly fifteen years ago (and maybe “Gone in 60 Seconds” later). Or, for that matter what ’70s disaster films did with declining/aging movie stars. The latter was likely more costly than the idea was worth and the former very much proves that the ensemble concept doesn’t necessarily work with awful writing and directing applied to it. Also, back then it was still thought that a star in the front seat (Willis and Cage, respectively) was necessary. Here, “First Class” benefits from a good action director, Matthew Vaughn, who is not necessarily an actor’s best friend (he couldn’t get any of them to speak those cardboard lines better?) but who is good at maneuvering them like game pieces on the screen and in the story.

Big picture editing-wise, the film both hits and misses as far as juggling different goings-on at the same time, however. Early on, the cutting from one character’s arc to another’s is perfect. But that’s mostly because the film doesn’t really break up scenes, just storylines. Later, during the film’s climax, inter-cutting between continuing events is a bit sloppier, and it’s disrespectful to certain (preferable) pieces of the plot and their characters, who keep getting interrupted. It’s worth noting that one of the film’s editors is Lee Smith, who regularly works with the less-action-deft Christopher Nolan. At least here you can tell what’s going on in each abruptly cut-away-from sequence.

I’ll finish up this meandering think piece with a final note on what I find a bit ironic with ensemble action movies like this: while gathering photos for this post I had great trouble finding group shots. In fact, it was hard finding publicity photos not featuring characters by themselves. And of course, now major ensemble-based tentpoles like “X-Men: First Class” have to release solo character posters, which highlight individuals rather than the ensemble. This movie even has separate character-specific trailers such as the Mystique one way up above and the compilation video of Banshee’s, Beast’s and Havok’s directly above. It seems rather contradictory to what the movie is doing, uniting these great actors and characters. Surely it gives everyone’s agents satisfaction, but it also likely falsely promises both them and their client notions of movie star trajectory most of them don’t deserve and, in this day and age, won’t achieve.

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