Friday, September 16, 2011

BD/DVD: X-Men & Thor

Let’s start with X-Men: First Class:

Short version: Great film; buy it, watch it, love it.

The story takes place in the early 1960’s, around the time (and events) of the Cuban missile crisis. The film follows the young and ambulatory Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meeting and befriending the young and angry Eric Lehnscherr (Michael Fassbender). The man who will become Professor X hasn’t lost his hair or the use of the legs yet, and the man who will become Magneto isn’t quite yet a villain, though he is one very, very angry individual.

First and foremost, this is a film about friendship, and that makes it wonderful. Xavier wants to find and train mutants in the use of their powers and how to blend with human society. Lehnscherr, scarred both from a childhood spent in Nazi concentration camps and time spent with Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is less tolerant of humans but equally fascinated to find others like himself.

Watching McAvoy and Fassbender play off each other is a joy. Surprisingly, and pleasantly so, McAvoy doesn’t play Xavier as all clean and good and wonderful; he’s a bit of prick, truth be told. And Fassbender is staggeringly good as Lehnscherr. Indeed, the film succeeds in large measure due to the humanity Fassbender brings to the role as he portrays Lehnscherr’s journey from mutant to Magneto.

Really, I can’t say enough wonderful things about Fassbender’s work here. I’ve enjoyed him in pretty much every film I’ve ever seen him in, but his performance here even transcends the work of the great and powerful Ian McKellen (Magneto in three earlier X-Men films) and that’s no small feat.

For me, a good superhero film lives or dies on the quality of its villains. While Lehnscherr doesn’t start out as the film’s villain, you know that when he assumes his Magneto guise he’s going to be. Fassbender nails this perfectly, and in so doing elevates the entire film.

He’s helped immensely by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw character, the villain for most of the film. Maybe it’s true, that Bacon can do no wrong; it’s certainly true here. Great villain, very well played.

There are other mutants in the film, but really, so what? All of the actors do decent work, nothing exceptional and nothing on the same level as Fassbender, Bacon, and McAvoy. This might sound like damning through faint praise; it’s not meant to be. (Well, maybe for January Jones as Emma Frost; her performance is stiff and a lost opportunity.) It’s just that they felt like filler material for the main characters to play off. As such, they do their job well.

There are a few cameos, made excellent by how they’re used. My favorite is Rebecca Romjin; don’t blink, you might miss her.

X-Men: First Class is a film that I didn’t want to see end. With an incredibly tight schedule and fast turnaround time, Matthew Vaughn has crafted a masterpiece of a superhero film. He has also made the film accessible even to those who aren’t fans of the comics and earlier films. First Class can easily stand on its own, no prior knowledge needed by the viewer.

And then there’s Thor:

This film represents what is, without a doubt, the most audacious move Marvel Studios has made in their series of superhero films. Up until now, all have struggled to remain grounded in some semblance of reality. Tony Stark is a billionaire genius who has the brains and the funding to create Iron Man. Bruce Banner is the unfortunate victim of science run amuck and thus becomes the Hulk. World War II era science manages to turn a puny runt into Captain America.

All, to one degree or another, attempt to say, “Hey, this could happen. Look, inventive humans plus money equals Science!

Thor steps beyond this and into the realm of gods from outer space. In ancient times, an alien race known as the Frost Giants attempts to invade Norway (God knows why), but benevolent beings from Asgard intercede on the behalf of mankind and work a smackdown on the frosties. Humans look at them and create the Norse gods of legend. Behold Clarke’s Law in action: Any science sufficiently advanced will appear as magic to the less advanced.

So is this leap into outer space any good? Yes, quite. Kenneth Branagh was a curious choice for director and he does an excellent job. Not surprisingly, he brings a certain Shakespearean tone to the proceedings, eagerly and confidently working with daddy and honor issues in grand style. The result is almost operatic.

Chris Hemsworth does a great job as Thor. Who knew that Kirk’s dad could portray the Norse god of thunder? As a bonus he also has some great comic timing, not just in delivering humorous lines but in terms of physical comedy. He also does a great job delivering some lines that might otherwise have been clunkers, like addressing the omnipresent Agent Coulson as “Son of Coul.” It’s a quick moment that easily could have fallen flat, yet Hemsworth pulls it off.

Equally up to the task, and in following with my rule that these films live and die with the quality of their villain, is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Excellent performance, complete with more nuance than you’d expect.

Not everything is perfect, though. The film sags in the middle and some of the design choices are way over the top. Some costumes work, others...meh. Asgard has awesome aspects (e.g., it’s a flat world) and awful aspects (e.g., is that pan flute thing a castle?). Most shocking, though, is that Anthony Hopkins, as Odin, is dull. I didn’t think it was was possible for Hopkins to be dull in anything, and yet...

Bottom line: Worth seeing, worth owning. As with all Marvel films, be sure to watch through the end of the credits. This time we get a hint as to who the villain will be in next year’s The Avengers. Actually, more than a hint, and one that leads nicely into the teaser at the end of Captain America.

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