A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class.

A D: Much like how you hated The Tree of Life, Jeremy, I hated Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films. Hated them!

Jeremy: What, seriously? They made you physically ill?

Yes, seriously, ill. I would have gnawed my own arm off to escape, if it hadn’t meant forfeiting my malt balls.

I remember the bit in the second Singer, when Mystique springs Magneto from his plastic prison, fondly enough. I mean, in the same way I remember the Boxer Rebellion being an interesting part of my high-school Chinese history class. It’s a callow, amoral sort of fondness.

True to your form. Being a monstrously Smurfy thing myself, I could similarly appreciate Alan Cummings as Nightcrawler, and Kelsey Grammer as The Beast. Although in actuality … “ponderous” best describes those flicks.

They ain’t light on their feet, no.

I’d call them the antithesis of good comics: grim, fussed-over, joyless. “I will show you the X-Men, but not such that you enjoy them.” Although people did in fact like them; I don’t understand why.

Because audiences often don’t know the difference between portent and value? Because they have in fact been trained to mistake the one for the other?

Maybe it’s tough to see how leaden Singer’s direction is?

The Lord of the Rings was in the theaters back then. It was a leaden time.

Don’t remind me.

Although, while people still hold up the second X-Men movie as some model of excellence, they seem to have soured on the first one, finally. And they never went for that Superman movie (which I didn’t subject myself to) that seems to have bankrupted Mr. Singer.

Didn’t see it. I intend to, after finishing the complete works of Trollope.

As you know, I don’t particularly care for Christopher Nolan, but I’ll take anything by him over anything by Singer. Nolan at least has ambitions, ideas. Singer’s just a hack.

What you are probably reacting to is that Singer is taken fairly seriously by the studio and comics-fan worlds both, on very little—indeed, no—evidence.

On the success of The Usual Suspects, really.

The Usual Suspects was something I enjoyed at the time.

Me, too. I remember it being a nicely enough written film, albeit a small one, and not that well directed.

And it probably has its pleasures even now. Though it would be clear how thinly spread they are.

Apt Pupil is what gave Singer away, for me. Or: Apt Pupil plus the fact that the same effects, even some of the same shots, more or less, utilized for depicting concentration-camp horror flashbacks in that singular mess are duplicated in the service of the Weapon X program in his mutant movies. No one said, you know, “Think this over …”?

That’s what I fear people liked about X2. “Gravitas.”

It all makes one long for another Norman Jewison to come along. I don’t even ask for another John Cassavetes or Mark Rappaport

John Cassavetes’s X-Men would be something to see. Starring him as Magneto, you think?

He had the glower. And the power to cast Gena Rowlands as Jean Grey (that one’s obvious).

And Ben Gazzara as Wolverine?

Too suave.

But Gazzara would play Wolvie during his Madripoor stretch. “Patch.”

Art by Sal Buscema (issue unknown).

Oh, you mean like Gazzara in Saint Jack. That would work. …

He could borrow his cigar from Seymour Cassel—

—who might prove an interesting take on Professor X.

Only if we could also have Timothy Carey as Mister Sinister.

Failure is something that Mister Carey also doesn't tolerate.

And Buck Henry as Cyclops. Wearing a ruby quartz version of those Coke-bottle glasses that he wore in Man Who Fell to Earth.

And then the late Peter Falk as … ?

Columbo. Who’d be investigating it all.

Typecast again!

"I see he's mutant, and we mutants have got to stick together."

That said: might Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine be the best bit of superhero casting since Christopher Reeves as Superman?

They had to get that one, at least, right. But the casting, overall, is better in X-Men: First Class.

Agreed. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender actually play Xavier and Magneto …

… as opposed to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who—

—who were cast because they look a little like their characters.

And are beloved for extracurricular reasons by young geeks.

And that’s partly what annoys me about the films: Singer wanted the geeks on board, but was happy to jettison them right away in favor of more mainstream audiences. (See, for instance, those generic leather biker costumes.)

Anyway, about this new one—it’s surprisingly not bad, you know?

It’s well written, as far as that goes. No cringe-inducing dialogue (or none that I recall).

And no massive exposition dumps, no verbalizing what’s happening onscreen.

Of the three films we just saw [along with Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life], this one treats its audience with the most respect. How odd.

Agreed. I couldn’t believe how many scenes conveyed their information cinematically! Like that reveal in the second scene, in Shaw’s office, when the camera suddenly cuts across the 180-degree line to show us the torture chamber there.

Which no one then comments on!

Had Christopher Nolan been directing it, Shaw would have said, “Ah, I see you’ve noticed my private torture chamber! Where I’m now going to torture you!”

And wee Magneto would have expressed his displeasure at this prospect. And Shaw would have insisted. And everyone’s cheeks would have looked puffy.

Let’s be clear, First Class has got its problems, as a film …

Sure. I mean, it’s a superhero movie. They’re a cursed breed.

But the director actually trusts the viewer to be savvy, to see around the occasional corner, to read the film as a reasonably intelligent human being (or consumer) would. And the director also seems to have this peculiar expectation that we, he, the actors—everyone—ought to be enjoying themselves.

For instance, that Bond-like scene in the Argentinian bar. No fat on it. Why don’t we get more treats like this in movies anymore? Are they so hard to carry off?

And the training montage halfway through, with its comics panel-inspired split-screen—a cute double-’60s reference.

Speaking of Norman Jewison.

The multiple panels are echoed, elsewhere, in the mirrored walls of the reactor chamber on the nuclear submarine.

Which nods at Emma Frost’s diamond form!

Which, since you mention it, is pretty damn stupid.

But that’s not the film’s fault. I think Grant Morrison came up with that, her “secondary mutation.”

New X-Men #114 (July 2001). Art by Frank Quitely.

Well, I still call stupid. It’s the film’s fault for importing it. And Morrison should never have quit Doom Patrol.

No, his run on New X-Men is surprisingly good (and I say that not being, as you know, all that big a fan of his work). Mainly because of Frank Quitely’s wonderful art (at least, in the issues he had time to draw).

New X-Men #135 (cover) (February 2003). Art by Frank Quitely.

And Morrison later got Marc Silvestri to return to the title—

New X-Men #252 (April 2004). Art by Marc Silvestri.

—albeit sans inker Dan Green, who I’d argue was the one more responsible for the distinctiveness of their collective style.

Uncanny X-Men #234 (cover) (late September 1988). Art by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green.

Even still, my heart did a little flutter.

As have the hearts of our readers now. They had no idea you were such a closet X-Men fan.

[Hangs his head in shame.] It was probably my favorite thing to read between the ages of ten and fourteen.

I was more into Hulk. But I was with the X-books till the Siege Perilous.

Oh, you missed some good stuff, then! Like the Reavers’s invasion of Muir Isle, and the return of Banshee and Forge …

Uncanny X-Men #254 (cover) (December 1989). Art by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green.

… and how the scattered team reformed itself after said Perilous Siege.

Uncanny X-Men #251 (p. 18) (early November, 1989). Art by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green. And, admittedly, this when the X-Men went through the Siege Perilous, but I wanted to include this page.

Not to mention “The X-Tinction Agenda,” which absolutely should have marked the end of the title. (It did so for me; I quit reading soon after that crossover. I mean “X-over.”)

Uncanny X-Men 270 (cover) (November 1990). Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Now we’re really digressing and alienating readers.

Oh, it was bound to happen. Okay, I’m going to geek out a little about the X-Men now …

[And I did, in fact, geek out, launching into a detailed analysis of 40+ years of X-Men comics. But we thought we’d spare you that lengthy tirade. Until we put it up as an Extra. —Adam]

Ahem. Om Namah Shivaya … Cinema! X-Men First Class!

By and large it’s a thought-through piece of work, and not excessively insulting. High praise. And speaking of good direction, there are those parallel tracking shots at the climax, when Magneto propels the coin through Shaw’s head, and we simultaneously track past Xavier (who is “in” Shaw’s mind at the time).

I utterly loved that part.

It’s simple, but very effective. And, again, none of the characters comment on it!

Moira MacTaggert: “Don’t you see? Xavier’s in his mind, and therefore experiencing the same agony that Shaw is!”

More like: Xavier: “I’m in Shaw’s mind! [Choke!] And therefore experiencing the same agony, &c. If only I could …”

And after that, when Magneto carried Shaw outside the ship, displaying his lifeless body, Christlike …

Um.

Well, I liked it! And kind of felt sorry for Mr. Shaw. It moved me in the silly way that good comic books can move me.

X-Men: First Class understands, and gets right, that comics should be simultaneously grandiose, larger-than-life, yet also cheeky and silly. It’s a romp to reimagine the Cuban missile crisis as an X-Men adventure. And why not? I could actually believe that this was an adaptation of some lost string of ’60s issues.

What did you think of the film’s 1960s setting, and aesthetic?

That it was a total mishmash, historically speaking.

Oh, to be sure. But that’s just like in a comic! As long as it all looks good.

Which it did. Mostly. In stark contrast to the film’s promotional materials.

Yeah, I went in without any hope. But the good work is up on the screen, where it counts.

One thing that doesn’t look good, and that comes as a letdown, is when Fassbinder dons that cosplay Magneto costume at the end.

Yeah, that looked out of place, especially after the nicer threads he sported elsewhere.

That everyone sported. Did you see that suit that Riptide was wearing?

How couldn’t I?

I love a film where even the flunkies are well-dressed. Of course I adored his outfit on the yacht (and wish I could find an image of it online).

Of course you would.

[Jeremy is referring here to my fondness for short shorts. Bring back the ’60s and ’70s, I say! —Adam]

I was having so much fun that I really feared it would fall to pieces in the second half.

Which it didn’t, surprisingly.

For once, the big battle felt like a natural outgrowth of all that had come before.

And was pretty engaging in its own right. And amusing without being risible. For instance, the scene where Magneto repeatedly tries redirecting a salvo of missiles at the Americans and Russians. Which is funny, but not played (entirely) for laughs.

Another strength of the film was that it was sexy. Both the women and the men were allowed to be enticing.

The men, the women, and the beasts. No doubt the ’60s setting did a lot to encourage that. Though Moira’s stripping to sneak into the Hellfire Club was more sleazy Charlie’s Angels ’70s. (I’m sure there are few people in the target demographic who know the difference.)

The Austin Powers series has, Tlön-like, overwritten the actual 1960s.

Which proves that the best way to adapt any comic is to set it in the decade of its origin—to get it away from the present. (Which proves that the best way to adapt any comic is to do anything but try to make it relevant, contemporary–bring back distance, bring back style!)

That was Singer’s biggest mistake in his adaptations: to try and translate Uncanny X-Men into some overly somber Matrix/wire-fu imitation. The strength of the book has always been the book’s ensemble nature, and its colorful array of characters.

It’s the UN of comics. (Or do I mean the Days of Our Lives?)

No, it’s the Star Trek of race parables.

The Ocean’s Eleven of costumed capery? (Or do I mean Robin and His Seven Hoods?)

Hey, how come no one’s done a super-powered heist film yet?

Wouldn’t that be Inception?

[unintelligible noise]

Or The Holy Mountain?

Anyway, it’s much more effective to stay in the ’60s, and instead reimagine the X-Men mythos in a way that allows a little fun into Singer’s bell jar, while still making sense (for those who care) when seen as a direct prequel to the other X-films (which wasn’t necessary, but is a fun constraint).

Yeah, they even put Azazel in, so he could meet-cute Mystique (“Why, hello, fellow villain!”), and they could go off and have Nightcrawler.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Uh, I loved the recasting of Xavier as a groovy swinger—

—who’s undoubtedly using his mental powers to get inside girls’ miniskirts.

It’s a nice way to take an otherwise mostly boring character down a few pegs.

Other than casting Seymour Cassel.

That would be bringing it up a few pegs, surely.

Yes, Xavier could never be that razzmatazz.

Did the changes in X-Men canon bother you, since you’re such a fan?

Heavens no! So they made Moira MacTaggert and Banshee Americans—so what? And so now Havok was an X-Man before Cyclops—again, pffft. The way I look at it, who really cares if it was Scott Summers who led to Alex Summers becoming a member of the team, or vice-versa?

The only thing that confused me was there being a totally different character named Angel. The flylike woman.

Rather than a playboy with feathery wings.

Or awesome metal razor-shooting wings.

Yeah, she’s another Grant Morrison New X-Men invention, if I recall. She was a better character in the book than in the movie—edgier. Like a darker Jubilee.

I think, too, that someone protested when she chose the code-name “Angel,” that it was already taken, and she didn’t care. Although I’m possibly making that up.

Angel (the original) was a stupid character, anyway. What could he do besides fly around, look pretty?

He also had hollow bones.

Yeah, which made them that much easier to break.

He’d just fly away!

Some hero.

Well, he also had super-keen vision. And his eyes were coated in some protective substance, so he could fly fast without going blind.

And he always craved fish. Anyway, we all know that he wasn’t the least bit cool till Apocalypse had his way with him.

Uncanny X-Men #281 (October 1991). Art by Whilce Portacio and Art Thibert.

Of course, despite all the kind things we could say about the film, it’s all still a trifle, and hardly urgent viewing.

I’d recommend it, though (and I have). It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with a Hollywood movie in a while—since Scott Pilgrim, in fact.

And while First Class isn’t as first class as that neglected gem, but I won’t hold that against it.

The problem is context. Every shred of humanity and honest-to-goodness continuity (and I don’t mean the “But that was Jean Grey’s clone!” kind, I mean the editing-room kind) in a Hollywood movie now seems an oasis.

Agreed. That was another thing I liked about this X-Men: bodies seemed a little more substantial than is the norm in Hollywood these days. Like when Banshee started flying, you could accept the physics of the situation.

Or suspend one’s disbelief in without shaming oneself, in any case. Unlike the Frost Giant melee in Thor.

That said, I didn’t go in hoping for much (other than, “Let this be over quickly”).

My expectations were so low after Tree that I was walking on air after X-Men. Which shouldn’t be the case. And yet I so expect “blockbusters” to treat me like a gormless puddle of popcorn butter that a little common decency leaves First Class feeling like Sunrise.

You and I have been lucky so far. X-Men was good, and Thor, though routine and forgettable, was harmless.

Well, we haven’t subjected ourselves to Green Lantern yet.

I’d rather go see it than watch Tree of Life again.

In brightest day, in blackest night,
We’re doomed to watch both.

We’re all doomed; it’s just that the best films admit it.

Does X-Men: First Class admit it?

It’s not a best film. It’s a best X-film.

Perhaps the inevitable doom there is having your story continued in a Bryan Singer film.

Hell is other mutants.

Indeed. I’d see First Class again, I suppose. Though I’m in no hurry to.

I’m going to try to catch it one more time. If only for the costumes and the performances.

And the bizarrely intratextual ending.

You mean the part where Moira MacTaggert gets debriefed?

Yeah.

And she says to her superiors (spoiler!), “I remember only trees, sunlight, a kiss…”

…I think I just saw The Tree of Life!”

[Our visions cleared. While we’d spoken, many weeks had passed. Jeremy had forgotten his flight to Madagascar. Realizing that he’d be fired if he returned to Champaign-Urbana, we dug out my back issues of Uncanny X-Men and settled in for the duration.]

[Join us again in a few more weeks, when we’ll say pretty things about Super 8, Film Socialisme, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. As well as possibly Green Lantern.]

[Update: This is a good argument that Magneto is a more compelling voice of authority than Xavier in this film.]

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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

A D [Jameson] is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy, the novel Giant Slugs, and a lot of film and book reviews. He lives in Chicago.

Other Installments:

  1. Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
  2. Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  3. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
  4. Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
  5. Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
  8. X-Men: First Class
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15 thoughts on “A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: X-Men: First Class

  1. I’ve heard really good things about Morrison’s run, it’s actually on my to do list. I would like to see Beast become the big muscle bear we all know he can be.

    I loved this movie, and also loved this conversation, although there were far too few references to Fassbender’s epic smolder.

    A D, I will never forgive you for not informing me there were shirtless pictures of you on the internet BEFORE we drafted that htmlgiant post.

    ~tim

    • The Morrison New X-Men run is definitely worth reading. The writing’s a convoluted mess, but he has tons of nifty ideas—typical Morrison. Frank Quitely’s art is a joy forever, although he ends up missing every third issue due to deadlines. I usually get the urge to reread it all every two years or so. Sometimes I’m tempted to pick up the trades (used, of course), but I can never quite justify shelling out the money. (I have it all CBR.)

      That Pitchfork picture’s a year old and, I’m happy to say, somewhat out of date: I’m in better shape these days! My love of short shorts has, meanwhile, only increased…

      Cheers, Adam

      P.S. Fassbender is utterly dreamy in this new movie.

  2. wasn’t as down on Tree of Life as y’all were, but I agree wholeheartedly this time. I was so happy coming out just to see something that was actually zippy, that got the rhythm right.

    At 10 – 14 I imagined myself a big X-Fan but have been thoroughly put to shame by the knowledge dropped above. I really would like to sit down with a run of like issues 150 – 300 some time & read proper.

    • I’d start with Giant Sized X-Men #1, then issue 94 (where continuity resumes). Chris Claremont hits his stride somewhere between issues 100–110. After that, it’s pretty stellar for a long time.

      And I bet you won’t make it to 300. Claremont leaves with issue 273, I think, and things go very badly very quickly soon after that. By #285 or so, the book’s unreadable.

      I downloaded the complete run (at the time) several years ago, as scanned files. There’s an archiving format, CBR, that lets people package high-resolution JPGs as individual files. And there’s a reader that allows you to then read those files full-screen. It’s pretty nice (especially if you have a large monitor). Sometimes folks even include the original ads…

      Thanks for the comments, “dole”! A

  3. This was a pretty wonderful conversation. I’m looking forward to catching up on some of the dialogues I’ve missed.

    Also, I still think The Usual Suspects is a kind of crappy movie.

    • I never liked The Usual Suspects especially much. I remember that, even at the time, I found it too predictable, and nowhere near as clever as it pretended to be. But it was also a relatively fun film, and an attempt to make something noirish and narrated and moody, and I can appreciate that.

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  9. Two years later, I remember the experience of seeing this more than the movie itself. I do admit I found it fairly engaging at the time, especially the first half, but I also remember it was merry in that it provided me and my girlfriend a seemingly endless string of things to ridicule, so that it was like we were simultaneously indulging yet aloof to it. (We’re usually not talkers in movies.) Sadly, I no longer remember most of these, except that I found it funny Magneto’s happy place was latkes (such that he is actually drooling a bit with effort afterward), and that when Bacon storms the CIA compound, Azazel’s job seems to be to individually drop every guard from the sky, a very laborious use of powers. On a more serious note, I do remember resenting that Magneto comes off as better in the film, or rather than the makers couldn’t manage to articulate Xavier’s position convincingly. You can’t even give him a coherent soapbox, and then you take away his legs! And don’t give me that “Magneto was always better” blather… any position can be made convincing. Plots warp themselves around coherent positions.

  10. Two years later, I remember the experience of seeing this more than the movie itself. I do admit I found it fairly engaging at the time, especially the first half, but I also remember it was merry in that it provided me and my girlfriend a seemingly endless string of things to ridicule, so that it was like we were simultaneously indulging yet aloof to it. (We’re usually not talkers in movies.) Sadly, I no longer remember most of these, except that I found it funny Magneto’s happy place was latkes (such that he is actually drooling a bit with effort afterward), and that when Bacon storms the CIA compound, Azazel’s job seems to be to individually drop every guard from the sky, a very laborious use of powers. On a more serious note, I do remember resenting that Magneto comes off as better in the film, or rather than the makers couldn’t manage to articulate Xavier’s position convincingly. You can’t even give him a coherent soapbox, and then you take away his legs! And don’t give me that “Magneto was always better” blather… any position can be made convincing. Plots warp themselves around coherent positions.

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