Summer Movie Roll Call, Part 1

Catching up on summer movies the last couple of weeks, after going underground for three months studying for the LSAT:

Green Lantern

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 23%

Too Harsh, Too Nice, or Just Right?

Harsh. Despite the fact that I’ve pretty much reached my superhero saturation point since watching the dreadfully messy Spider Man 3 in 2007, that I think the Green Lantern’s power is kind of silly, and that I don’t like Ryan Reynolds, I felt I was reasonably entertained.  By this point so many superhero films are rolling off the assembly line that filmmakers are dispensing completely with certain features of the genre which were once de rigueur: Iron Man tossed aside anonymity as a requirement, and the joys of discovery, so beautifully demonstrated by Clark Kent racing alongside a speeding train in the 1978 Superman, and painstakingly tied to the challenges of adolescence in the first Spider Man, get shorter and shorter shrift—why bother to make people with supernatural powers seem extraordinary when we come across six or seven new ones every summer?

Green Lantern, like all comic-book first chapters, deals with origins, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a normal person accept supernatural powers with as much nonchalance as Ryan Reynolds does here.  There is the requisite back-story involving his father–like him an ace pilot, who died in a training accident when Reynolds’ character was very young, and that back story, of course, figures in heavily in Reynolds’ ability to accept and maximize his newfound abilities, which involve creating physical projections of his will through a mystic green ring.

The film has no surprises whatsoever. It was incredibly costly to make (reportedly the production + promotion budget topped $300 million), and while the look of the film (spacey, with lots of glowing stuff) is adequate for its purposes, it doesn’t look like it should have cost that much. I think a big part of the reason I may have enjoyed it more than the critics is that I am a science-fiction geek, and appreciated a bunch of the geeky exposition—intergalactic federations of super-powered guardians, patrolling three thousand different “sectors,” etc., etc.—that regular people would literally not even hear.

Also, Blake Lively gets better-and-better looking every time I see her in a new film. I hope she doesn’t end up in the Jessica Biel Zone—cast in thankless, perfunctory roles just for her hotness, with really no place to go from there.

I just don’t get the Ryan Reynolds thing. Actors who make a living off of sarcasm need expressive eyes—the glimmer of identification which lets us in on the joke. Reynolds has the most lifeless eyes of any comic leading man I’ve come across. You can’t get away with caustic humor when your eyes aren’t quietly winking at us, telling us, hey–it’s okay, this is just my way of dealing with a scary world. You end up just looking like an asshole.

X-Men: First Class

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%

Too Nice, Too Harsh, or Just Right?

Too Nice. Don’t get me wrong—this movie is pretty good, probably one degree higher in both nobility of intent and elegance of execution than Green Lantern.

One of the particular thrills of the X-Men movies is their weaving together a multiplicity of very specialized and often odd superpowers into a framework of reality, so that we never believe that anything is accomplished in arbitrary fashion. The best example is the earliest fight between Magneto’s crew and Xavier’s in the first X-Men, when the different mutants pit their powers against each other in ways that balance out remarkably—Magneto, surrounded by police, turns the officers’ guns back on them and fires the bullets. Xavier answers by mind-controlling Magneto’s henchman, who threatens to snap Magneto’s neck. Magneto responds by letting the bullets come an inch away from the cops’ foreheads—if he dies, the bullets will keep going. This process of counterbalancing is fundamental to all of the action in the X-Men movies—each of the mutants is allowed to be really, really bad-ass in one context, but each is negated in turn in another. Each of them is very cool, but no one is that cool. When the director has events moving at the right pace and level of energy, the X-Men universe approaches a degree of plausibility other franchises, even revered ones like Superman or Spiderman, can’t match.

First Class keeps this tradition going admirably. The bad guys get their requisite workhorses (one character, the murderous red-skinned teleporter, seems to do almost all of the dirty work, just like the initially underwhelming Toad—whose power was the ability to jump on and stick to things, and shoot out a twenty-foot long tongue—did almost all of the dirty work in the first movie) and the good guys counter with the duo of a young Xavier and Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto. Xavier is played by James McAvoy as a smart, rich, charming, entitled young academic, which is meant to contrast with Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender) more somber origins—Lensherr was subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust as a child. Fassbender and McAvoy play the leads with just the right degree of conviction—enough to keep your attention; not so much that you think the performance might have been more suitable for Schindler’s List than a comic-book movie.

The story hurtles forward with loads of momentum, and we get good work from Kevin Bacon as the principal villain—he is playful and at times charming, but still plenty scary—and January Jones gives us a good idea of exactly how Mrs. Don Draper would behave if she had telepathic powers and the ability to morph into crystalline form (I still imagine Don would figure out a way to keep her in check, regardless).

The subplots involving mutant pride and outsider status are all a bit tiresome, however—the same ground has been covered in the previous movies, and none of the writers has quite figured out a way to make it sound like anything more than mandatory platitudes. Do we really feel any sympathy for a teenage Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, voluptuous but looking like she’s not quite comfortable with the sillier stuff, after an excellent naturalistic performance in the indy Winter’s Bone) because she’s blue and scaly? Or Dr. Henry McCoy because he has funny-looking feet? She gets to morph into whoever she wants, after all—including Victoria’s Secret models—and he gets to be a genius. Why the heck would they want to hang out with normal teenagers, anyway?

If there are philosophical considerations to being a superhero worthy of our interest, they are not ideally represented by the X-Men universe. In that respect Superman or Batman will always have the mutants beat out. Nietzche would certainly have found the idea of telepaths capable of mind-control and Kenyans who can control the weather trying to ‘fit in’ with normal people bizarre. The X-Men ethos focuses heavily on the concept of evolution, but never honestly addresses the fact that our society considers evolution as not an issue of diversity, but of advancement—of the newer and better superseding the older and obsolete. By the time baby Magneto is bending his first fork, the rest of us have probably already gone the way of the Cro-Magnons.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
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