It’s been a week of ups and downs as far as superhero films are concerned, and in some ways a week of surprises. Firstly, X-men: First Class was a surprisingly good film, when I had went in expecting a cheap attempt at Fox clinging on to the trademark, and then, Green Lantern, a surprisingly disappointing film that had so much potential. In many ways, this week was DC verses Marvel, and Marvel won.
Of course, this wasn’t a direct fight, and I don’t have the time to dig up my DC verses Marvel comic to see who Green Lantern fought and who the X-men fought (apart from Wolverine; I remember Wolverine fought Lobo). In an actual battle, and I realise talking about actual battles in relation to fictional superheroes is rather redundant, but Green Lantern, whose power is whatever he wants so long as his willpower is strong enough, would most certainly have taken out every single one of the X-men. That line alone should tell you why Green Lantern had the potential to be much better than it was, but due to some bad casting, a lack of focus in script writing and changes to the original story, it didn’t turn out as good as I’d hoped. On the other hand, X-men: First class actually exceeded my expectations, especially Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Magneto as a tragic holocaust survivor turn 1960s super agent.
In case you don’t know, X-Men: First Class is the origin story of how the X-men as a group were formed, set against the backdrop of the Cold War. This includes the privileged Charles Xavier coming to realise that diplomatic relations won’t just happen, and sets about creating an initial friendship with Magneto that is fated to be destroyed by their underlying conflicting attitudes about how to deal with humans. The film also sets to wipe the future of X-Men origins: Wolverine and X-Men 3: The Last Stand from the film canon, through subtle plot lines, such as Emma Frost as an adult, while she was originally a teenager in Wolverine, which is meant to happen later, and takes the history of X3 off the board due to the initial appearance of Xavier and Magneto to a young Jean Grey, where Xavier is walking, although it clearly takes place after the Cold War. In this way, the film subtly subverts its connection to the previous two films, which will please many fans.
One of the many things that the film does properly is the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. This is in part due to the actors who play them: Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who are fantastic in these roles. Fassbender does an excellent turn as the loner action hero archetype, while McAvoy is well suited to the more emotionally connected and intellectual Xavier. Considering the main thrust of the story is in fact the relationship between these two men as both parallels and conflicting ideals, casting these two was innately essential to making the film work. The good casting here is what makes the film work for the large part. The plot lags a little because it actually takes a good part of the film for the new recruits to actually engage Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, even though Shaw walks around the film for the most part representing the constant threat of nuclear attack. The fact that he actually does very little makes him infinitely less threatening. It seems as though Azazel is the guy actually doing things, so it poses the problem of why he’s working for Shaw. Ripetide too in part, but his power is less useful anyway.
Aside from these two main characters, most of the younger actors actually don’t really have enough of an onscreen presence to really stand out. Jennifer Lawrence is rather decent as a young Mystique, Nicholas Hoult brings very little new to the character of Beast, Zoë Kravitz doesn’t seem to yet have the range and ability to make the audience care about a rather minor character from the franchise, or her strange heel turn, and Edi Gathegi is rather unfortunately cast as Darwin, when he’s probably capable of more than the role allowed him. This is also true of January Jones, in the role of Emma Frost. The character in the script didn’t give her nearly enough to work with, and having watched Mad Men, I know she’s a better actress than the film allowed her to be.
Of course it’s not perfect. I’ve mentioned that at times Shaw doesn’t really feel like huge threat since he seems to just wait until the heroes are ready to attack. At one point he attacks the mutants, but Xavier is gone at the time. He doesn’t even think to come back later, apparently killing one and taking another is enough. The use of relatively unknown actors to play rather unknown characters was also unfortunate, since they didn’t have the ability to make us care about the characters, whereas Xavier and Magneto were instantly recognisable and accessible to the viewer. Yet, for all these faults, they’re relatively minor and the film is still immensely enjoyable, which is more than can be said for Green Lantern. You might still like Green Lantern, but in many instances where First Class did it right, Lantern failed.
I return to the issue of casting. While First Class got the Xavier/Magneto dualism well tuned, Green Lantern struggled to have any characters other than Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard and Mark Strong who brought anything interesting to the role. Least of all, is Blake Lively, who I suspect was meant to be playing the role as someone who cares for Hal Jordan, though unwilling to let him in after his jerkass behaviour, but she honestly comes off as rather bitchy and delivers lines with the sole emotion of indignation. Even the scenes where she’s meant to be encouraging sound like she’s instructing a child. I’ve long known this from my days of watching Gossip Girl, but this film has to be proof that Lively belongs nowhere near the big screen. Ryan Reynolds on the other hand slides into the role with ease, using his practice from Buried to create a believable action hero under duress. The CGI suit might make him look a little silly at times, but Reynolds commands so much of the scenes that it’s difficult to take your focus off him long enough to care about whether the suit glows a little too much against the backdrop.
The writing does seem rather over the top at times, mostly with the dialogue, as though the script was confused about whether it was trying to emulate the old 1980s superhero films such as Superman II and attempting to be a sort of Science Fiction epic on par with Star Wars. It gets caught in the middle, never quite succeeding at either, and thus becomes a sort of deformed offspring of Batman and Robin and Attack of the Clones. Peter Sarsgaard seems to have recognised this and hammed up his role, so that some of his exchanges with Ryan Reynolds are the better scenes, although admittedly his motivation and the strange love triangle between Hal Jordan, Carol Ferris and Hector Hammond seems to come out of nowhere and go nowhere. It seems it wasn’t enough for him to be infected by Parallax; he has to have his own motivations. In part, perhaps this is one of the main issues with the film, it just can’t commit to any one reason for any of the characters really doing what they’re doing. Is Hector doing it because he’s infected? Is it preying on his fear of not being good enough? Does he want revenge on his father? Is he in love with Carol Ferris? If Green Lantern 2 is to be made, the script will require a lot more focus and drive.
Green Lantern 2 is certainly a possibility. The presence of the yellow ring in Sinestro’s possession suggests a second film is either planned or anticipated by the studio, although I have a feeling that Sinestro and his yellow corp will be a much more convincing threat than Parallax, the really dark cloud. Honestly, Nimbus would be a more appropriate name. (Spoiler: Bets on the yellow ring feeding on Sinestro’s fear bringing Parallax back in some sort of ‘so long as good, so will evil’ cliché?) Still, given the potential of the character, and that superhero films can rise to the psychological and existential platform of The Dark Knight that more couldn’t have been done with the Green Lantern. It is only alright, but some of the casting and plot choices are far too glaring for the film to be truly enjoyed, unlike X-Men First Class that got casting right where it mattered most. I suspect however that some of this is just my inner nerd shining through, and the average cinema viewer would enjoy these films anyway, but then I doubt you’re really reading this unless you care about either franchise to begin with.
All in all, X-men was good, Green Lantern not so good, but both movies are really only keeping me going until Captain America. I loved Thor, and I think Captain America looks promising too. As the build up to The Avengers gains more and more speed, the crossover is looking all the better, so I hope it goes well, rather than another disappointing waste of potential.