Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm a Marvel - and I'm a DC with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and GREEN LANTERN


Ah, now time for a kind of blog I'll only be writing... um, every other month by the look of the cineplexes.  There was a time when a comic book adaptation would be, well, not a super rare thing, but not something one would expect every other week.  But now that it's summer of 2011 we got a schedule that sees at least one flick from DC Comics or Marvel comics in theaters till near the end of summer.  This isn't to say it's a bad thing, or a particularly great happening either, just a sign of the times post-Dark Knight.

But as happenstance happens, I got to see two movies back to back, as per those Youtube videos, of a Marvel movie (seeing my second time following the first time two weeks ago) and a DC movie.  And they each have their own themes or characteristics that overlap, of characters having to learn what to do with their great powers and responsibilities and all that jazz.  How they are as fully functional films?  Let's see...

X-Men: First Class takes its place in the X-Men movie saga - as the technical fifth film since 2000's X-Men - but it's important to know right up front that Bryan Singer returning to the franchise (as producer and co-writer) means that there's not a strict adherance to continuity.  Indeed to Singer and director Matthew Vaughn the third film (mediocre but not bad) and the Wolverine Origins (shit) might as well not exist.  Though the film doesn't really make this point strong enough, once one gets through this point then one can take it as the follow-up to X2, and thankfully this is not just a worthy follow-up to that entertainment.  With a few flaws, which I'll get to in a moment, it's the strongest movie of the franchise, as fun and as deep drama.

X-Men has always been about giving weight and consequence to the themes, of the "different" trying to go with mankind, or just not, while having some good ol' mutant fights.  A key conversation between a young Erik Lenksher (Michael Fassbender) and a young Charles Xavier playing chess (message!) illustrates this as they talk of what to do when they arrive at what is the Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missle Crisis time in 1962.  "We have a chance to show we're the better men," says Charles.  "We ARE already the better men," replies a curt Erik. 

"You choose black?" "It suits me well."
Where they come from is an important point for how they see the world and humanity and at large, and this conflict is what makes up the most captivating aspect of the film, and underlying in the other films as well (or at least the first movie).  One comes from a fairly well off background growing up in a manion in Yonkers, New York, while the other is right out of the concentration camp of Poland circa 1944.  One can guess where this kind of perspective leads, but seeing it played out is something else.

The film opens with a young Erik getting his indoctrination to his powers before he really knew he had them, through a Nazi named Schmidt - aka Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) - who kills Erik's mother before his eyes just to get a reaction (which he does, in one of those staggering scenes that is so graphic in its intensity, not so much violence but just the imagery of brutality, to probably scar the little ones in the audience).  Then by the time 1962 rolls around Erik is a Nazi hunter, tracking down those from the camps one by one, and then coming to Shaw the same time the CIA does, with a Xavier in tow.  This is the start of the X-Men before there really is an idea of what they can really do; The Right Stuff is a good base of comparison when not looking at early James Bond (both favorable homages by the way, if not so intentional the former). 

Hello breasts, I mean, Emma, Ice Queen, right...
And it's through this Vaughn gets his fantastic hook: the first stage in a very long struggle with little end in sight, "Us" vs "Them", and what side there is.  What makes it so fascinating is that not only do Charles and Erik having these differing views, but that the mutants they bring in to the fold - including a young Raven (Mystique), Alex Summers (Havoc), Banshee, and of course Hank McCoy (Beast) - have their own points of view on where to stand.  It's not that Xavier is entirely right, nor that Erik is even 'wrong' at all either.  Both sides have their gray areas of morality, of trusting humans too much to do the right thing and losing their faith in them completely (and, perhaps, rightfully so) through years of oppresion and hardship.  Characters like Raven and Hank make up quasi-avatars for the audience to fall into, and all the while in the scope of history unfolding in Cold-War era nuclear (near) chaos. 

While the stakes are so high, and by the time the climax comes and Erik has to face his Dr. Frankenstein Shaw, there's still some fun Vaughn doesn't let slide.  Having a young new crew of actors and characters could be tricky, but there's just enough time with them for there to be interest without the overkill of two-dimensional beings.  The training montage is a big part of this, showing how good they get to be in order to take on Shaw, and it's funny, thrilling stuff done with a flashy quasi-Bond style appropriate for the material.  Now, this isn't to say every character is played totally spot on.  One of the major complaints fans have had with the film, and I'd join this sentiment, is that January Jones, as Emma Frost, is so flat that there's just nothing there but vacancy (and one knows she has some talent and range through her work on 'Mad Men'). 

And yet there is so much to make this work - among the more superior summer blockbuster in recent memory.  And I must stress again how tremendously the filmmakers pulled off the story of Erik Lensherr.  This isn't to diminish Xavier (and James McAvoy's touching portrayal, done with humor and vigor), but for me The Man Who Would Be Magneto is such a gripping story, told within the framework of the rest of this origin story, that makes up some of the best set-pieces and moments from any comic-book movie, ever. 

Part of it is Fassbender's performance  (in case Craig isn't up to task anymore, get this man as 007 stat), as well as Bacon's, which has been underrated since the reaction's come out to the movied.  But it's just the scope of it that works; it's almost as if, unintentionally, they got right the Anakin Skywalker origin story completely, as a boy, separated from his mother, turns to the dark side through how he was brought up, with some guidance but not enough to move away from his fate (and hey, they both end up with kick-ass helmets!)

The movie is far from perfect, for some of the reasons I've stated and a couple others like some lame jokes near the end ("I'm a professor... soon I'll be losing my hair," says Xavier, ::rolls eyes::), and a couple of silly moments with some boat-captains of the US and Russian variety during the climax.  But, bottom line, this is THE X-Men movie, understanding of what makes this world so compelling, what drives the mutants to do the good they do, or the bad, and how there's no easy choice either way.  That's something special in a genre where the most prominent figure (Superman) is in full-on black-and-white morality mode most of the time.  As in any good dramatic story tension is good, and this has a lot.  Just see that one cameo mid-way through with that guy who was in that movie for more on that... vague?  You betcha.  Oh, and did I mention it has spectacular action sequences?  Well, it does. 

and next up...

I can't say I was having heavy anticipation, or even strong expectations aside from "this better not SUCK", with the first ever Green Lantern theatrical film.  Mostly because I hadn't read the comic, and it still may be a little while till I get around to them all (though I hear Geoff Johns work is no less than seminal, if not totally perfect).  But by the end of this film, directed by Martin Campbell (of 007 reboots, twice, and the Zorro reboot from 1998), starring Ryan Reynolds in the titular role of Hal Jordan, an ace pilot who has some father issues (what major superhero character doesn't have some parental issues?) is 'chosen' by the ring ala A-Bin-Sur's death/arrival on Earth to become a Green Lantern as part of the Corps of Lanterns all across the known universe... I didn't like it a lot to heartily recommend it, nor hate it enough to damn to Hades.  It is what it is, okay Popcorn fare. 

Which, perhaps, may not be good enough for some, certain not the legions (and I know they're out there if nothing else at seeing the multitudes in the packed audience wearing the shirts) of fans of the Hal Jordan/Green Lantern saga, which has been one of DC's staples off and on since the 1940's.  It still sticks to its science fiction roots, which is commendanble, but perhaps also it was always going to be difficult to make a Green Lantern movie that wasn't a little... well, silly.  It deals with really big moral concepts like "Will" (identified by the color green that the Lanterns are powered by), and "Fear" (powered by the color yellow... get it?), and yet the main villain here, a giant head attached to a whole spectrum of, uh, sand-worm things and shit, called Paralax, is powered by Fear and yet can't seem to be destroyed by the HUNDREDS of Lanterns, who we see assembled on the Lantern-Base Oar (sic) without patroling their own sectors most of the time we see the planet. 

SPOILER:  Not the villain, would his face lie?
It's a villain who should by all accounts be imposing and threatening, and yet I was more creeped out (if not really seeing as a really big threat) by Peter Sarsgaard's performance as the scientist who while doing an autopsy on A-Bin-sur (still sic) gets infected by the same "Fear" that makes up Paralax, and can a) hear people's thoughts, and b) can shoot lasers from his eyes and/or control matter with his mind. 

In a sense this gives him the combined powers of a Xavier and Magneto, but without any of the real character "umph".  All we get really is a minor Daddy issue with his Senator father (a decent but all-too-brief role by Tim Robbins), and then he turns into a bulbous weird-headed creature.  It's a character and performance by the always competent Sarsgaard that I found fascinating, not necessarily because it did work but because it didn't (maybe, as my friend suggested, it was cause of his hair, as he looked weird from the start instead of a more natural progression of a transformation).

But what about Hal Jordan?  How does he fare here?  Ryan Reynolds surely does the best he can with the character, what he's given anyway, albeit whoever said he would've been better as "The Flash" would probably be correct.  His Ace Pilot Jordan is a cocky sort, fun to watch though probably not for too long, and has a streak about him that is part Chuck Yeagher flying so high up to break some records, and part Daddy-issue guy (what's up with that, for realz?), not helped much by HAVING HIS PICTURE in the plane he flies but then has to crash since he focuses on a bad flashback for too long.  So needless to say he has some doubts about the gig for being a Lantern, which is fine.  Except that - and this is a flaw I place on the writers and Campbell - he's on this planet, being trained by Lanterns who know their shit like Kilawog and the stalwart Sinestro (a wonderful if one-note Mark Strong), and then he just leaves to go back to Earth.

While there's more plot to go around once he gets back there, it's a predictable beat that shouldn't feel so much so, and there's so little time spent on this strange and cool looking alien planet of Or (sic again, sorry, I'll look this crap up later).  Unlike last month's Thor, which found a good balance between the out-of-this-world-but-recognizable home of Asgard with the scenes on Earth, this has a good start on both Or and Earth... but once Jordan comes back to Earth, the movie doesn't really go in an interesting enough direction.  It has a little of what we expect, of Jordan finding his courage to Be All He Can Be(R), but it would have had more at stake if there was more time spent out in space and less with Blake Lively. 

(Then again there is a scene mid-way through that tickled my funny bone for how, unintentionally, the film poked fun at a superhero mythos and those who know the hero finding out the identity, as Jordan flies up to Blake Lively's apartment, and then she just realizes after several seconds, Hey!  You're Hal!  She then says, "Why do you have that mask on?"  "It came with the costume," he says.  This may be wittier than I'd give the filmmakers credit for... or just enough).

Green Lantern works as a decent spectacle machine, but I'm not sure if I missed something along the way.  There's some fun to be had as Jordan finds what he can do with this ring - which allows him to create anything with his mind (what, chocolate fudge brownie ice cream not good enough for you?) - and yet I wasn't sure how much of this should be taken seriously, or as just goofy comic book fun.  The big climax of the film has Jordan facing off solo (cause, you know, the other Lanterns aren't going to do nuthin even as they know he could use, you know, HELP) against Paralax, and it suddenly is taken out into space as Jordan has to stop it from attacking Earth.  So they go to the sun... and this where I started to feel my funny bone tickling where I know it shouldn't be.  This is an enthralling, dramatic finale, no?  But then there's a giant fist made via the ring and then... oh, damn it, did I say too much?

The Guardians, aka: the most useless bunch of Yoda's this side of Or.
As a not-quite fan I can't say what is really worth rushing out to see it.  If you have a little kid, by all means they'll have fun with the visual effects, some good (the Lantern Council is well done) and some not so good (some of Jordan's 'effects' like the machine gun and the race track).  Others may feel bored, and others may tire of Jordan's jokes, despite Reynolds really trying to give it his all.  Maybe a sequel could flesh things out, or make it a full-on space adventure, which would be nice.  It's not a terrible start to a would-be franchise, and nothing to write home about either.  Oh, wait. 

In this match-up, the winner: MARVEL!



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