Hello. My Name is Professor R* and my area of study is the cinema.
I come to you in peace but it's time to reveal the shocking truth. A new mutation has developed in the storytelling arts. Second and third acts, those middles and endings moviegoers like you and I have known since birth, will soon be extinct. A new more lucrative mutation has developed among storytellers: the eternal beginning.
This looping trait -- sometimes cutely referred to as "rebooting" and other times clearly marked as "2" -- is a matter of evolution. As television has come to dominate pop culture the movies have transformed into gigantic hybrids, attempting to master television's most powerful assett (long form storytelling) without having the right equipment by which to master it (weekly hour-long episodes). It's survival of the fittest and greediest. The largest films now only deliver endings when absolutely cornered (and charge double for the rare privilege of "finality" Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) and now frequent in eternal beginnings (see also: The Avengers prequels, all "reboots" and 'hey, that's the same movie in a new locale!' sequels).
Such is the case with X-Men First Class (2010) which begins as an exact replica of X-Men (2000) in Nazi occupied Poland when young Magneto's (aka Erik Lehnsherr) mutant abilities first manifest. He is ripped from his parent's arms and returns the favor by tearing up the steely barb wired gates. After that eerily familiar opening, fleshed out with some psychological torture by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) we travel cross the ocean to New York for a "meet cute" with two other Mutant Babies, wee telepath Charles and wee shapeshifter Mystique in the vast Xavier mansion in Westchester -- I don't recall the telepath and the shapeshifter knowing each other so intimately in the previous X-films but, sorry, "reboot". Proceed, movie, proceed.
With four character intros and two locales behind us we leap forward some two decades and continue criss-crossing the Globe: Switzerland, Nevada, Argentina, DC, Russia; With virtually every new locale we get new characters and plotlines. "This season on X-Men!..."
Though the film moves efficiently through its locales and characters, it only ever lands with impactful force while chasing Magneto who is himself chasing his childhood enemies. This potency comes largely from two things. First, it's the cleanest and most direct narrative in the movie. Second, it's the narrative that stars the great Michael Fassbender who has screen presence in spades and emotional acuity to die for. (The early Nazi showdown in Argentina, a tense multi-lingual drink at a table that erupts into violence: this is a corrective homage to Inglourious Basterds, yes?, with Fassy allowed to live and triumph.) Fassbender has been boldly claiming himself The Most Important New Screen Star in The World onscreen for at least three years now (speaking of eternal beginnings) but now that he's in a blockbuster, the world will finally realize he's already claimed it. Well done.
Even this Nazi hunt showdown in Argentina, thrilling as it is, is more prologue than triumph or resolution. The plot is acrobatic to say the least but the only acrobats that stick their landings are Fassbender and McAvoy.
"Your work is puerile and under-dramatized. You lack any sense of structure, character and the Aristotelian unities."
-Wednesday Addams [Addams Family Values]
One may be forgiven for wondering if the movie will ever start, well into its running time. There are so many beginnings within this overarching First Class BEGINNING! that even after the elaborate Hellfire Club threat is established, you still have to stop the movie to introduce government officials and a handful of new mutants who are to become the first students at Xavier's school. Their training, which should make for excellent B plots in season 1 episodes, is reduced to jokey split screen mayhem.
The movie's lazy tone deafness about familiar X-Men themes: persecution, diversity, self-loathing versus pride leads to uncomfortable moments. As a friend remarked to me, post screening, but do we really need an intense close up on the one black character the second somebody uses the word "enslaved"? And the continuing dialogue refrain of "Mutant and Proud" which should be relatable and even cathartic, given that the X-Men have always been excellent stand-ins for oppressed minorities, comes across as silly.
To be fair to the movie, some of the eye candy works: James McAvoy's blue eyes are worth a thousand CGI effects, January Jones is a visual treat in human form and the actresses inner ice is an amusing counterpart to Emma Frost's outer mutation; Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) a character one could fairly expect to be a failure when transferred to screen works tremendously well (loved that underwater bit). Many of the other characters, though, are duds. Havok (Lucas Till), for instance, is lacking the unique visual identity that made him tick in the comic books (and why mess with chronology mythology to include him. Is Scott Summers younger brother suddenly his father or something?) But if I'm accusing the movies of being unable to end, I should wrap up myself.
The Cuban Missile Crisis finale to this beginning chapter is enjoyably chaotic rather than incoherent (which is more the norm lately as action sequences go), with the few separate action threads braiding together well. But even First Class's satisfyingly staged final battle and the subsequent team-splitting coda is mere prologue. If this were a television pilot, I'd be DVR'in the shit out of it but it's a movie. And as a movie, it's frustratingly hit and miss and lacking a big payoff.
"Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint."
-Scott Rudin [The Day the Movies Died]
This storytelling mutation is so cruel.
Keep that carrot dangling, but never give away its precious nutrients. The audiences may, for a price, enjoy its vibrant color from afar. When your hungry audiences grow weary of merely staring at said carrot, DO NOT offer it to them. Instead, remove the carrot entirely. They'll find sustenance elsewhere, and a few years later you may begin dangling the same carrot again once they've rebought their ticket.
Beginnings are the easy part. Bet on them! Sharp character arcs, taut screenplay construction, crescendos and rhythm in the story telling, glorious "it could only ever end this way" resolutions --- the stuff of second and third acts -- are the hard work. But hard work is difficult and, thanks to blockbuster cinema's mutation, no longer required.
X-Men First Class Report Card
Fassy & McAvoy: A | Every Moment Where They Stared At Each Other Meaningfully Or Teary Eyed: A+++ (KISS HIM!) | Production Values: B+ (good stuff mostly) | The Surprise Cameos: A | "Beast" Makeup: D (why can't they get this right? They biffed it in The Last Stand, too) | January Jones: XXX | The Other Villains: ZZZ | Everything Else & The Movie Itself: B- or C+
*Like Professor Charles Xavier, I have a shiny scalp, pleasantly shaped skull, a thing for redheads and bird women, reside in a large building in New York, and am inexplicably fond of stuffy Scott Summers. Unlike Professor X my mutant powers have yet to manifest and I am (fortunately) not confined to a wheelchair, though I feel like I am today as I've thrown my back out. ARGH! Back to sickbay with me.
Yours, Professor Nathaniel R.