“X-Men: First Class” opens tomorrow. The ads are a case study in silly pretentiousness, presenting the juvenile material as something of import akin to the Holocaust. Of course, the oppression of mutants is kind of like the Holocaust to geeks, so it makes a certain sense. So far, the newest installment is getting stellar reviews, a relief after the blood-curdling awfulness of the last prequel.
In 2000, I crammed into a crowded theater on a Friday night to see the first “X-Men.” At that time I was just beginning to realize that most comic books are terrible but was only a few years removed from an X-Men fascination, so those characters were fresh in my heads and my anticipation was high. Though both Batman and Superman had been turned into successful franchises before being run into the ground, there hadn’t yet been a big budget attempt to realize any Marvel properties, especially one that isn’t as culturally prevalent as those DC characters. Writers frequently wondered whether or not the Bryan Singer directed film was bound to be an $80 million flop for Fox, especially after reported difficulties.
Of course, “X-Men” was a huge success, heralding the beginning of a still going run on comic book movies. The first entry has aged terribly, with effects that now appear tame and a lumbering story, but at the time it was slick and rather grand.
The sequel, also helmed by Singer, is an improvement, streamlining the story and giving it a militaristic feel, particularly in a Waco-esque invasion of the X-Men’s base and a climax at a military installation. Building on the first, it got to the root of the amnesic Wolverine’s past and produced a story that was vastly more exciting than the original’s.
The third, a mega-budget spectacle overseen by professional half-asser Brett Ratner, scaled back the runtime of the previous two by a half hour and dumbed down the story to levels of previously unseen stupid. Though met by universal disdain by serious fans, “X-Men: The Last Stand” tends to play well with those who couldn’t care less if the entire mutant populace fell to a plague. Short, loud, and sweet, it basically closed up further plot with a deus ex machina weapon that saw demigods reduced to nothing with the prick of a drug-tipped needle.
Then came “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a howlingly bad prequel with 90’s era special effects, the most notable of which was a roid-ripped Hugh Jackman hamming it up through one of the worst comic movie stories ever seen (watch Gambit fly Wolverine from New Orleans to Three Mile Island in a prop plane). Director Gavin Hood, whose previous experience was the left-wing anti-torture flop “Rendition,” proved utterly incapable of managing a nine-figure popcorn project, making this not only the worst of the series, but of 2009. Incidentally, I got more hate mail for my one star review of this than anything else (though my one star tirade against “The Darjeeling Limited” comes close), all from half-literate teenage comic fans.
“X-Men: First Class” is directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose adaptation of “Kick-Ass” made waves with critics but barely registered with mainstream audiences. The last film set the bar low enough that this one merely has to rise above dreadful to avoid the bottom ranking, and some of the money shots in the ads, such as an entanglement between Magneto (Michael Fassbender) a Soviet armada, look like they’ve got potential to impress. But allow me just one fanboy nitpick: if Mystique is a teenager in 1962, doesn’t that mean she’s in her late 50’s by the time the first films roll around? For reference, she was originally played by Rebecca Romijn, who was about my age when “X-Men” was filmed.