X Men: Saved by the Decades (Part One)

 X-Man Wolverine Monalisa

X-Men Days of Future Past has enacted justice. Not Magneto’s, Trask’s, Phoenix’s or Apocalypse’s justice, but the only one that counts. It took well over $500 million in two weeks, crushing X-Men: the Last Stand’s diabolical record in its puny hand. Now comfortably over $700 million it looks like the X-Franchise’s future is secure off the screen… And it took a trip back to school of course…

IT’S BLOODY GREAT TO BE ABLE TO SAY THAT X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST IS THE BEST FILM IN THE X- FRANCHISE SINCE X2. It really is; good for comics, cinemas, the genre, competition… But it’s been a rather long and painful 11 years. Not just for Fox’s stuttering franchise, for the hopes of a real Magneto standalone, for a mostly limping Wolverine, for Fox who sat on the consistently best selling comic book and watched their partner rivals Marvel slip into the comic slipstream like a Mario Quicksilver. “Let’s a go!”

Forge

As we all know, it was 1998’s Blade that kick-started the ongoing comic boom, not Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. However, that film did add veracity, even a little realism – or perhaps better put, actor gravitas – to proceedings. But hooking itself around, and concentrating on, the core of black leather-bound mutant superheroes it was just a little low key. It needed an extra action scene, it needed to marry the themes of division, segregation and history over a longer run-time.

Three years later, X2 converted that subtlety to a strength. It built on every aspect, teasing new metaphors while retaining mysteries and most importantly, setting a phenomenal cliff-hanger. Expectations were so high, the third film would have always struggled. That must be why they surrendered at the first hurdle. X-Men: the Last Stand squandered its predecessor’s set-up and frankly, the less said about it the better. It rocked the box office hollowly, leaving a franchise that lurched slowly toward wasted chances of spin-offs and inevitable reboot.

It took Marvel’s determination to build an interlinking and self-selling franchise to make Fox appreciate what they had. Perhaps an easy mistake to make in the era of ‘back-to-back’ filming and in-built ‘trilogy’. Possibly inadvertently, when Fox woke to the fact they found everything was in place to not only quick fire a spawning franchise that lived up to its name, but also lived up to the scope, ambition and behemoth status of its parent comic book. It just took a few risky hires and a step back to that comic’s birth decade.

Wolverine close-up

The 1960s – X-Men: First Class (2011)

Darwin

The children of atom form the first class of the Xavier school…

The first’ reboot’ film, wasn’t the film that single-handedly changed things, but what a start. To think it could have been released as X-Men Origins First Class. After X-Men Origins Wolverine, it’s chilling to remember the threat of a repetitive title.

Behind the lens, they couldn’t have chosen better for the reboot. Matthew Vaughan’s main qualifier was 2010’s Kick Ass, and it was an astute if not unpredictable move by Fox to bring him on board to capture some of that energy for themselves – with franchise midwife Bryan Singer present as producer. Vaughn brought trusty lieutenants with him, including writer Jane Goldman.

It would be totally partisan to suggest that this British weight added a lot, but it certainly didn’t hurt. That said, the creative team would have struggled to mess up the 1960s setting.

It just works. Sure, things are a little creatively flourished. This isn’t particularly 1961/62 in fashion, music or scope. It’s a generic 1960s of Bond, referencing a few points of that franchise’s mid-decade high points. What it didn’t shirk on was the contemporary politics, tying directly into the backbone of metaphor in the X-universe and crucially; using the past to find new ways of looking at the future. “We are the children of the atom” is Sebastian Shaw’s repeated mantra. And when the threat of nuclear war was never stronger, those children of atom form the first class of the Xavier school.

Polaris

Cultural landmarks that familiar characters can grow against

1960s politics is woven into the plot to a satisfyingly surprising degree – feeding on the era’s paranoia while building on the period otherworldliness. It makes the idea of another film like X-Men Origins: Wolverine hitting the franchise impossible. This is different to the futurism that X-Men presented, but so much more effective. It was a shrewd move to copy X-Men’s opening, creating n almost divergent timeline and setting a serious agenda that fuelled into Lehnsherr’s Boys from Brazil hunting, even if Shaw is a little too conveniently tied into that plot point.

First Class presents a far more varied palette than its predecessors. At the heart of Shaw’s emphatic reasoning, the Cold War is most striking. Rather perfectly, it’s central but disassociated from the plot. The proto-X-men are formed by the CIA, but they soon learn to live without them. And the plot survives Shaw’s disinterest in politics; the Nazis and later the Russians merely feed his agenda – a precursor if vastly different slant to Magneto and, if it can be put that way, Apocalypse. These are well known cultural landmarks that the familiar characters can grow against. While the Russians give Shaw the classic Magneto helmet, America gives Lehnsherr and Xavier the Lincoln statue as a background to mull over freedoms, liberty and implications that will come to hit the franchise in the future past – one’s that were present from the very first scene of this and X-Men.

First Class uses its politics as well as its pop culture references. Xavier and Lehnsherr’s first meeting comes on the back of a pure Bond set-piece. Very Thunderball at a time when the Bond franchise had only just arrived at the cinema. Of course, it needs a great soundtrack to match  – and serves up the best in the franchise. The ‘60s themed titles/credits are a wonderfully thought out touch.  Well, until it closes with Take That (one British contribution it could do without). And alongside these bits and bobs, First Class packs some fine action, avoiding the pitfalls of X-Men. Shaw’s CIA breakdown manages to compete with the sublime Whitehouse incursion that kicked off X2.

Beast

Absolute power corrupts absolutely

As that set-piece shows the casting is generally superb, particularly Kevin Bacon’s wicked turn. It helps that no one else in the franchise has rivalled Magneto (and no, Dark Phoenix doesn’t count). But aside from the contrived origin, his character journey is a little too sketchy. His seemingly convincing “We don’t hurt our own“ adage doesn’t stay true for long, as he nears the end of a road unbridled by any kind of moral purpose. Perhaps he works simply as that broad prototype of Magneto; a crucial part of the main villain’s genesis but also part of a time where he had to take on a succession of real human names before being replaced by mutants who take on real mutant names. Perhaps he’s just the truism inside the larger metaphor – that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Elsewhere, aside from another range of forgettable evil mutants (a series trademark), seeds are set surprisingly well for the trilogy we’ve already seen .  And that’s down to the strength of the mutants who are yet to fall. There’s the older Mystique in-joke of course, while Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence capture the menace and echoes of the future. That Magneto’s path is the most compelling is not surprising (yet another film that makes a sorry example of The Phantom Menace). What is impressive is that Xavier’s isn’t far off, mainly thanks to his dynamic with Mystique.

This is all about sewing those seeds, but as an actual origin story four films after ‘the origin’ film, it has the wise approach – and all credit to Vaughan for retaining his fresh Kick Ass sensibilities – to have fun with it and not pay too much lip service to the rules of an established franchise. Thank goodness for that rounder, new comic book era style storylines are brought in such as Mystique’s strong ties to Xavier.  The sequel would build on this even more impressively.

Dazzler

Previously Wolverine had carried the humour, here the others can let loose

Something else that would be built on is perhaps First Class’ greatest contribution: humour. There are the in-jokes, particularly about hair, but also a general wryness greatly missing from its earnest forbears. The Wolverine cameo, with the certificate sparing use of “Go fuck yourself” is the major crowd pleaser – taking its leads out of character for comic effect. When X-Men Days of Future Past comes to reference it, it’s not as effective. That film would need to raise the stakes to ensure the Canadian hairy one’s involvement but here it’s clear he would have a significant destabilizing impact. Previously Wolverine had carried the humour while here the others can let loose. That he had his own solo mission to undertake, poor as that was, probably saved the franchise.

For quite some time afterwards, First Class was talked about as the start of a trilogy to rival the original. Fortunately the rising phoenix of Marvel and some behind the scenes jiggery-pokery made sure it was so much more. And so, a plan was hatched that would draw on the original comics more than ever, the sterling work of X-Men’s main Brit/American: Chris Claremont.

Next up on X-Men through the Decades: Flares and New Romantics… 

“There’s little worse than a dull X-Man. Except Solemno there, sitting quietly in the corner waiting for Apocalypse… “

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