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Marvel Movies 2011
You knew this was coming, didn't you?
And no, I haven't seen Green Lantern. Sorry. I was going to. But I had to wash my
That's actually a hair color, you know. Jennifer Garner promotes the dye.
I am enough of a comic geek to have seen the truly terrible 1990 adaptation of
Captain America, in which the Captain rides a motorcycle, romances his 70-year-old flame, and . . . does other stuff. It's been a while, but I remember, even then,
how terrible it was, and how the stunt drivers didn't seem to know a thing about
actual stunt driving.
So my standards are low. They have to be. Captain America, Thor and Iron Man
are all dang hard heroes for a studio to get right. Daredevil actually has a lot more
promise as a move hero. So does Punisher. Dark avengers with twisted psyches are
familiar stuff in our world. Norse Gods, billionaire playboy POWs, and aw-shucks
World War II soldiers are harder.
So while Cap and Thor's (and for that matter, Iron Man's) films aren't high art,
they are fun, diverting and even rewatchable, and that is, believe you me, an
As for X-Men: First Class, well . . . read on.
Thor works on the pseudo-Shakespearian themes hard enough to distract us from
some of the silly assumptions, thin characterization and just plain cheese.
Branagh wisely ditched the comic's human identity for Thor to be trapped in, but
kept the central conceit: Thor has been arrogant and impetuous and has to get
knocked down a few notches.
Loki, his brother, appears to genuinely care for Thor, but he grows increasingly
schemy and snakey throughout the story. His double and triple-crosses are
exciting, for all that anyone with a passing knowledge of Norse myth can see them
coming. He and Thor's daddy issues make for a good set of King-Lear-Lite
Branagh wisely wove the Norse God myth into a modern, science-fictional setting.
They are a more benevolent Q continuum, with less omniscience and more pomp
and pageantry. And they have a sparkly wormhole bridge. And some of them are
black and Asian.
It's fun, reasonably consistent, and it's a sensitive man's superhero. Chris
Hemsworth struts around without a shirt, but he also smiles and turns into a perfect
gentleman in order to please Natalie Portman. The romance works fairly well, but
Thor gets better character than his lady love. While he gets to go from arrogant to
vulnerable, she stays at a one-note sexy-smart scientist level, serving mostly as a
foil for him to fall in love with and to help him humble himself. At times she
recalls the missteps of Iron Man 2, where Gwyneth Paltrow's previously nuanced
character became shrill.
"Romantic foil for a superhero" is a tough role for an actress, especially since few
parts carry the dramatic meat Margot Kidder got from Lois Lane. Paltrow and
Portman spend a wee bit too much time running around worrying about their man.
They have more acting chops than Kirsten Dunst in the Spider-Man movies, but
they don't get to do as much with them.
Which leads me to:
Hayley Atwell in Captain America, on the other hand, is one of the best parts of
the movie, since she is so cool and collected that she automatically throws off the
over-earnest, aw-shucks Steve Rogers. She's a fantastic foil. Most importantly, she
is never shrill.
In one scene, where she is irritated with Steve because of his naïve reaction to the
women who keep throwing themselves at him, he picks up his "vibranium shield"
and, still trying to make nice with her, asks, "What do you think?"
She shoots the shield three times with a handgun. Totally cool, she answers, "I
think it works."
Like Thor, Cap works because the title character is given a nice dramatic arc, and
grows to be a whole person while remaining vulnerable. Steve Rogers is a skinny
kid with a lot to prove: his parents died heroically in World War I, his best buddy
is going off to fight in Europe, and he is, as a shrimpy asthmatic, 4F and a regular
target of bullies. He would no doubt like to be a hero, but he would settle just for
going to the front and dying in battle.
His desire to fight in World War II is freakishly obsessive. In boot camp, he keeps
scrambling under barbed wire and climbing rope ladders even while he's wheezing
and flagging. But when he's asked about it, he simply states, "I don't like bullies."
And we buy it. Chris Evans, even when his head is digitally transferred onto a
skinny little actor, is totally convincing. He's willing to get shot full of chemicals
and be doused in Vita-Rays (how's that for a 40s-sounding term) for the chance to
get shot at by Nazis.
Like Thor's growth from arrogance to humility, Chris Evans portrays Cap as a boy
growing into a man. What matters in this movie is not that Captain America wants
to fight. In the beginning, skinny little Steve Rogers has nothing to lose. But by the
end, he has a faithful coterie of oddly international soldiers serving under him, the
faith of the American people, and Atwell's love, and he still chooses to sacrifice
What? That's no spoiler. You know he's frozen in ice and wakes up in the present;
it's telegraphed right there in the prologue. Come on. Man up.
Good things aside, this movie is a ball of clichés coated in cheese. Fistfights
galore. A Nazi mad scientist villain who vants to be a god, herr Captain! Contrived
romantic drama. Lasers in the 40s. Motorcycle chases through the woods.
It's a retread of much of what director Joe Johnston did in The Rocketeer in 1992. I
watched it again recently, to prep for Cap. Clichéd as it is, in the hour and forty-five minutes of The Rocketeer, there is no moment where you won't have fun, and
Captain America is just as much fun.
Quibbles: The film has a tortured relationship with actual history. Hydra is the bad
force, and painted as a separate arm of the Nazi party to avoid any direct Nazi
atrocity connection. That doesn't keep them from screwing up other history,
though. Black and Japanese-American soldiers are co-mingled with white soldiers
in Italy in 1943, when each ethnicity was relegated to its own division, respectively
the 92nd Infantry Battalion for blacks and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for
Japanese-Americans. The 92nd didn't hit Italy until 1944 as well. Are we supposed
to think that these black soldiers in American uniforms are Algerians?
I suppose its silly to complain about historical revisionism in a movie where a
super-powered dude runs around the Italian front liberating soldiers, though. But in
the case of the segregated battalions, it really does matter. Which leads us to more
historical revisionism in:
X-Men: First Class
The X-Men, and this film, are unlike the superheroes of the Avengers franchise.
Bryan Singer's first two X-Men films were a thinking man's superhero team.
Mutants stood in for persecuted groups, whether they be persecuted for race, sexual
orientation, or disability.
X-Men: First Class is the first X-Men movie since Singer's that looked like it
would remember this fact, and to portray characters whose lives have been
genuinely destroyed by hatred. I looked forward to this one. Singer produced it.
Director Matthew Vaughn actually improved on one of Neil Gaiman's weaker
works in Stardust and turned a terrible comic into a half-decent movie in Kick-Ass.
First impression: It seems to be the best of the Marvel movies this summer. Smart,
full of textured characters, three who make a significant journey, and packed with
On reflection, though, it is the most disappointing.
X-Men: First Class didn't have the potential strikes against it that Thor and Cap
managed to overcome. The Xavier/Magneto bromance was rich and deep in the
comics continuity already, and all it took was a good script and two good actors to
pull it together. Raven's splendid arc had been mapped out on numerous other
characters -- from shame to selfhood.
But this movie, supposedly about liberation from racism, promptly kills off one
black character and turns another one to the dark side. Wha?
It's emblematic of the problem at the core of First Class, but we'll get to that.
There are a few other things to discuss first that keep First Class from the heights
of the first two X-Men films.
The "Bond-ization" of the film that gives it a lot of drive weakens it. Kevin Bacon,
as Sebastian Shaw, is a scenery-chomping supervillain with his own submarine. He
chafes a bit as a typical villain, akin to the Red Skull, in this movie where a major
character is an embittered survivor of the Holocaust and another seeks to reconcile
humanity to its persecuted class.
Submarine chases, shootouts, and scandily-clad sexpots fill this movie, and it's
hard to concentrate on a message of harmony for humanity when it's mixed with
such light, gratuitous fare. I like Emma Frost in her lingerie. It's a valued X-tradition. But when she is tied to a bedpost and choked, it sure shifts the tone of a
film that seeks the heights of Singer's brilliant X-Men United.
Michael Fassbender's performance as Magneto is a definite highlight, especially
opposite James McAvoy's Xavier. Fassbender had a lot to live up to. Ian McKellen
became Magneto effortlessly in the first two films, portraying a man possessed by
his dark conviction.
In Singer's first film, Rogue asks, "Are you going to kill me?" and Magneto
responds, "Yes. Because there is no tolerance. There is no peace." I believed him. I
believed that this man has seen the worst humanity had to offer and has come away
with nothing but hatred. (It was Ian McKellen, and he could portray a compelling
Fassbender, thank goodness, became Magneto to a T in this film, prefiguring
Magneto as a man whose anger might morph into something more dangerous and
despotic. In a chilling scene near the start of the film, he murders three leftover SS
commanders with cold conviction. When Xavier taps into his few remaining good
memories of his mother, Fassbender weeps, but it doesn't break his conviction. It
just shows the evidence of the pain behind his hatred.
But. He, or rather Vaughn, fails. In the crucial scene, near the end, Sebastian Shaw
monologues about the superiority of mutants and Fassbender and, after he beats
Shaw, says, "I agree with everything you've said, but you killed my mother, so I
must kill you." He goes on to become the megalomaniac supervillain we know and
Problem: I just didn't believe him.
I was trying to figure out why. Fassbender doesn't do anything wrong in this
movie. He's utterly magnetic (snap!) in every moment he has onscreen, in the same
way McKellen was.
At some point, Vaughn and the scriptwriters failed to convey his transferred hatred
from Shaw and the Nazis (those dang Nazis again!) to humanity in general.
It speaks to a very subtle flaw in the movie. Ultimately, Matthew Vaughn isn't
making a movie about prejudice the way Bryan Singer was.
I like to joke that you can easily tell that Bryan Singer is gay and Matthew Vaughn
is straight, given the former's preference for pulling off Hugh Jackman's shirt and
the latter's preference for women in lingerie. It goes deeper than that, though.
Singer, perhaps because of his sexuality or just a better sense of story, really
understood what it was like to be hated and feared.
Vaughn gets a lot of meat into the character's arcs. But he did the same thing in
Kick-Ass and the movie still failed to matter.
In Singer's X-Men, Wolverine and Rogue became a microcosm of the persecuted
who feel subhuman. Xavier and Magneto became the debate between militant
separatists and tolerance advocates. And even among the action, the silly comic
book plot twists, and the fact that our main character was a snarling, metal-boned
unkillable claw dude, we thought.
In First Class, we just have wonderful character arcs, but the characters are really
there to fight, take their clothes off, and fight some more. It is a good movie. Like
Cap and Thor, you will have fun.
But it's not what X-Men should be.
And that is a damn shame. Because unlike Cap and Thor, who are second-rate,
oddball superheroes that managed to succeed onscreen, the X-Men have Marvel's
richest mythos, and after Spider-Man, are the most easy heroes to identify with.
Raven, Xavier and Magneto should stand for more than this.
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Read more by Spencer Ellsworth