Dir. Matthew Vaughn
It might sound strange to say, given the checkered track record of the superhero film in general, but of all the titles (and this summer's onslaught is continuing unabated, with the upcoming Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger), the "X-Men" series do have a significant legacy to live up to. Bryan Singer's initial two films (X-Men and X-Men 2 remain two of the high-water marks of the genre, bolstered by above average acting, excellent art direction and reasonably rewarding writing. The films succeeded in hitting the sweet spot between faithful, thoughtful adaptations and robust action pictures. You could enjoy them without hating yourself in the morning, as it were.
Unfortunately, after the promise of the first two films, the third -- helmed by the considerably less inspiring Brett Ratner -- was a conceptual and artistic dud. Since then, we've had one spin off sequel of sorts, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which while pretty to look at, did little else to wash out the foul taste of the previous title. That film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who did well enough in the eyes of Fox to have another go in this new prequel to the original film. On paper, the film has some promise. We are set in the early '60s, as tensions mount between the U.S. and U.S.S.R over nuclear missile placements. In place of Royal Shakespeare actors Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, we have two highly decorated young Brits, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, and a fine supporting group that includes Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and January Jones (playing a diamond-encrusted villainess whose icy demeanor eerily recalls Betty Draper, only with the power to send Sally up her room telekinetically). Also in its favor, Singer, who famously defected from the third film of his trilogy after a contract dispute to instead direct the oddly limp Superman Returns, returns as a producer.
Despite it all, though, the film falls pray to the classic pitfalls of the comic picture -- it reads like a throwaway, all quick, artless scenes that jump around from location to location, getting to their point with as little wasted breath (some might call it "atmosphere" or "tension") as possible. In the course of things, we meet the young Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) as they get embroiled in a CIA program to combat the evil forces gathered by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), a former SS officer and tormentor of adolescent Magneto, now an arms dealer of sorts, with a grand scheme to pit the regular homo sapiens against one another in order to rise his brotherhood of evil mutants into a commanding position while still profiting from both sides. Xavier and Magneto hastily gather a group of young mutants to combat Shaw and his minions and thus a grand battle is enjoined just in time for the Bay of Pigs.
Alas, despite its obviously large budget and talented cast and crew, the film is far too impatient to make much of an impact. Scenes hurtle past, pushing the major plot points, but leaving far too much behind in terms of character development or coherency to really grab your attention beyond the whiplash narrative and the depressingly ineffective CGI effects that prevail throughout. As much as we may want to care, the film gives us little chance to do so, which is too bad. To create a particular point of comparison, Singer's second film introduced a character named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue demon-looking mutant, replete with pointed ears, fangs and a curving arrow-tipped tail. As ridiculous as it could have been, the combination of Cumming's exceptional acting and the art direction's superior interpretation created a fully believable, accessible hero. In this film, when one of the characters takes a serum designed to shrink down his enormous feet, he instead further mutates into a blue-furred creature that comes across as a miserable combination of Teen Wolf, the Cowardly Lion and an extra on "Cats." If this calamity doesn't bring Singer back to helm the next film in the series, all hope is surely lost.