Jul 12 2012
(Please see the movie before reading this review).
1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed. In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.
2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far. I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.
3. Mystique is exceptional, but the other female characters could probably have been eliminated easily. If you’re having trouble with female characters, I’d recommend watching this movie again, comparing Mystique to the disastrous Emma Frost and Angel. Notably, Mystique isn’t mainly here as a love interest, and the closest she gets to a romance (her flirting with Hank) is sweet and ultimately tragic. She has goals and motivations besides being a love interest. I can only guess what motivates Emma Frost and Angel, but they have no discernible personality traits and are not developed beyond sex appeal. Emma doesn’t actually do anything when the villain reduces her to getting ice for his drink. (Ma’am, the first rule of being treated like Darth Vader is acting like Darth Vader, and the only ice Darth Vader gets is frozen smugglers).
3.1. Mystique’s dialogue has notably more personality than Emma’s. Compare these two exchanges.
- XAVIER: “You should go with [Magneto]–it’s what you want.” In response to this kind encouragement from her best friend, she doesn’t just say “thanks” or “I know.” She actually says, “You promised you wouldn’t read my mind,” which strikes me as a much more interesting way of thanking him for encouraging her to follow her own path.
- SHAW, with anti-psychic helmet on: “What am I thinking?” EMMA FROST: “I don’t know.” Wasted opportunity here. I would have much preferred if she had offered a guess which developed one or both characters. Even “How does she get into that skirt?” would have at least given her a bit of charm and helped show what she thinks of him. Instead, she comes across as rather helpless without her superpowers. (One recurring problem with Frost is that she’s absolutely useless in every scene where her powers don’t work. She contributes literally nothing to the plot besides her psychic abilities, whereas Xavier gets interesting relationships, conflicts and unusual decisions).
4. I think that the revenge arc for Magneto was very effective–the bank and bar scenes made him come across as scary and at least vaguely likable. If you’re struggling with revenge-driven characters that are not as likable, I would definitely recommend checking out his dialogue there.
4.1. Giving Magneto a role in the murder of his mother was sharp–Shaw kills her because Magneto can’t move a coin in time. That helps develop Magneto’s burning desire for revenge, raises the stakes moving forward, and builds urgency into the development of his superpowers. (In addition, there might also be a subtle comparison between the death of Magneto’s mother and the crippling of Charles Xavier–in both cases, a bystander to the conflict pays the price).
5. The protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts were very satisfying. Some notable examples:
- Xavier vs. Magneto. This was much more interesting than anything we saw involving the antagonists. Both characters are three-dimensional and mostly-likable, which bodes very well for conflict. Moreover, even some of their agreements exacerbate conflict. For example, Xavier escalates Magneto’s stand against the CIA’s request that humans help in the recruitment of mutants.
- Mystique (and eventually Magneto) vs. Hank. The aborted romance here is touching and the evolution of their goals and self-perceptions is smooth.
- Xavier/Magneto/MacTaggert vs. the recruits in terms of maturity. This conflict would probably have been more interesting if there had been consequences—the recruits blew stuff up, but nothing came of it. That said, I do like how they interspersed the scenes of the recruits getting rowdy and the CIA bosses wondering if these untrained agents were actually ready for field duty. It might have helped if the CIA had forced them to prove that they were ready and/or threatened to cut the program.
- Mystique vs. Xavier–she resents that he doesn’t have to hide and that he’d rather be part of a world she’s at war with.
- Havoc vs. Beast was a bust. It might have helped if Havoc had received more development besides a one-dimensional ass. Removing other characters to buy time for development would probably have helped here.
- The U.S. government vs. everybody. I would have liked to see moral complexity here–the U.S. officials were mostly one-dimensionally dickish. More on this later.
6. The movie would have been more interesting if the government characters had been less one-dimensionally evil. Great protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts generally pit likable and mostly-justified characters against each other (e.g. TDK’s Batman vs. Lucius over the surveillance program or Avengers’ Nick Fury vs. Thor over weaponizing the Tesseract). The conflicts are more believable and satisfying if the writers respect viewers enough not to push them to take a side. In contrast, there were many points at which First Class pushed against U.S. officials. For example, the U.S. inexplicably betrayed its own agents. It would have helped if the motivation had been better here (perhaps the X-Men did something which might have looked traitorous). Second, before writing off Agent MacTaggert so asininely, maybe a U.S. commander could have at least wondered if it would be possible to extract her or get her to cover before opening the bombardment. (Even if it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t practical, at least raising the option would add some depth to the decision to write her off). Third, the U.S. officials sounded more like Hollywood boogeymen than actual people. For example, “The laws apply to human beings… at times like these, security matters more than liberty.” I think the characters would come across as more complex and interesting if they sounded like they believed what they were saying. For example, maybe something like “What good is liberty if we’re all dead?” instead.
7. I really like the plot strand introducing MacTaggert to Xavier.
A. The CIA agent hears about genetic mutations while investigating a major case.
B. The investigation gets blown by mutant superpowers and the agent loses the trust of her superiors.
C. She starts looking for an expert on genetic mutations.
This is a very elegant chain of events–A and B raise the stakes for C, and it all fits together very logically.
8. The villains needed a lot of work. They were probably the weak point of this movie. It might have helped if Shaw’s goal to cripple humanity had involved something other than a nuclear war (which would also have crippled mutantkind). For example, it might have made more sense if he had been trying to release a virus which was targeted to kill only humans. It was pretty obvious that the writers wouldn’t let him succeed in starting a nuclear war, so his plot was less suspenseful than it could have been. I would also have recommended cutting out most of the villains and overhauling the survivors–giving Emma Frost a personality and some role besides sex appeal and psychic powers would probably be a great start.
9. If you’re having trouble with intelligent characters, I’d recommend checking out Xavier and Hank here. I could definitely see Xavier’s erudite pickup routine working and his thesis successfully raises the stakes while sounding vaguely academic. Hank is a bit different than what we’ve seen in most other superhero movies: a very intelligent character that isn’t very confident/assertive about his intelligence. This leads to memorable exchanges such as “Are you sure [jumping out a window] will work?” / “Anything is possible.” Additionally, I really like that Hank makes mistakes. His initial work with Banshee and Havok turns out fairly badly and his cure is a disaster. He’s unreliable enough that Banshee says, “I trust you [Xavier]–I don’t trust him [Hank].” Hank’s unreliability adds some conflict and suspense.
10. I didn’t quite buy the introduction of the characters’ code-names. The scene felt less realistic than the rest of the movie and the names were unimportant enough to the movie that they could probably have been cut out altogether. In contrast, the exchange introducing the phrase “X-Men” strikes me as more natural. (XAVIER: “We’re still g-men, just without the g.” MOIRA: “No, you’re your own team now. It’s better. You’re X-Men”).
11. The movie did a great job in terms of giving major characters unusual choices. Some of the minor characters are sort of missing here, though.
- Xavier blackmails the CIA into only recruiting mutants with mutants.
- XAVIER: “You ready for this?” / MAGNETO: “Let’s find out.” I really like that he’s not excessively confident in himself. That’s especially refreshing for an antihero.
- The CIA wants to abort the mission against the Russian general, but Magneto pushes on alone. Xavier won’t leave him. Additionally, Xavier stops to help the Russian guards that Magneto has tied up in barbed wire, which helps develop the differences between Magneto and Xavier.
- When CIA agents mock the mutants, Beast passively closes the curtain rather than reacting more aggressively.
- The villain lets the mutants freely choose whether to come with him or stay.
- Darwin marches out alone and gets cut down trying to save Angel. This was the closest he came to a personality.
- Xavier attempts to disband the team after Shaw attacks, but the recruits refuse.
- Xavier really pushes his teammates, leading to conversations like this. XAVIER, while holding a gun to Magneto’s head: “I don’t know about this…” MAGNETO: “Don’t worry. I can deflect it.” XAVIER: “If you know you can deflect it, you’re not challenging yourself!”
- Magneto kills Shaw even though Magneto agreed with Shaw that mutants should be ruling over humans. It turns out that murdering mothers is not the best way to make friends and influence people, especially their sons. PS: Emma Frost, please take notes on this while you’re growing a spine.
- Even though MacTaggert tells Xavier she won’t reveal anything to the CIA, Xavier wipes her memories of the mission anyway. Erasing the kiss was especially cold. I think this helped add some depth to Xavier and foreshadow some of the threats Xavier envisions (e.g. hostile psychics).
- Xavier encourages his best friend Mystique to go with Magneto because it’s what she wants to do. It’s pretty rare for a main character to make a sacrifice for a friend that is less central to the plot.