Origin of Species: X-Men – First Class (2011)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

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Alias – ‘A Broken Heart’ (1×04)

MICHAEL VAUGHN: In this job you see darkness; you see the worst in people. And though the jobs are different and the missions change and the enemies have a thousand names, the one crucial thing, the one real responsibility you have is to not let your rage and your resentment and your disgust darken you.

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

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Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

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Tomb Raider (2018)

If ever a cinematic franchise in the making deserved the reboot treatment, it was probably Tomb Raider. The adventures of British Lady, Lara Croft, she of pixelated bosom, cut glass accent and frightening wealth, who so entranced video gamers in the late 1990’s, have not to date had the most auspicious history on the big screen.

For half a generation, Lara Croft was epitomised by Angelina Jolie. The bosom came naturally, the accent less so, but she certainly gave it her best shot in two pictures adapting Eidos’ massively successful female replica of the Indiana Jones series – firstly 2001’s slick, hollow Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, in which Jolie-Lara fought Ser Jorah Mormont who went looking for a magical triangle to stop time (or something) and later in 2003’s slick and, yes, hollow Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, in which Jolie-Lara again teamed up with (bellow it) GERARD BUTLER! to stop Mance Rayder (in yet another Game of Thrones connection) from unleashing Pandora’s Box. Not figuratively, you understand, but literally. *The* Pandora and her Box.

Suffice to say, despite fairly decent box office, neither of these films did anything to successfully lift the long-held ‘video game to movie’ curse which has swirled around adaptations of computer games to the big screen since their inception in the 1980’s. The rot undoubtedly started with the fetid 1993 take on Super Mario Bros (arguably the biggest game of the 80’s) and has festered ever since through a cornucopia of cinematic versions of beloved games, some of which were tackled by half-decent directors with fairly strong casts. Assassin’s Creed last year, helmed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender (both fresh off a great new take on Macbeth), was considered the Great Video Game Hope but, alas, it was critically panned. Mind you, I think that film is seriously underrated. But that’s another story. Back to Lara and her tombs…

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The Last Jedi: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.

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Romancing the Stone (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising. It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just *the* signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.

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