What We’re Watching – 6/8/11
Lately I’ve been trying to make sure I’m caught up on the big films of 2011. That means for this week’s column you’ll see an abundance of summer sequels. Some of these enhanced characters we had met before now continue their stories in new and interesting ways. Others…not so much.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
I am a longtime fan of the X-Men. Professor X and his band of mutants sit only behind Spider-Man on my list of favorite superheros. The last few years have been hard on X-Men fans, as they bore witness to the film series running itself into the ground. But X-fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Mathew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class improves upon the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine to put the series back on track. Predominantly set in 1962, First Class tells the story of how Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) first met and joined together with other mutants to form the X-Men. As with any prequel, there are many contradictions with the rest of the film series (even if you ignore the last two films, there are plenty of errors here). What makes First Class arguably the best prequel to date is not what it does wrong, but what it gets right. By taking place so far before the other films, there is a lot of room for surprises and not just “oh, that’s why he’s mean”-type observations. We know that eventually Professor X will be crippled and Magneto will turn on him, no big surprises there. More interesting is the depth given to previously underdeveloped characters. How we grow to care about future villainess Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and their would-be love story was my favorite aspect of the film.
Of course, there will be supporting mutants who get short drift, but that’s happened in all of the X-films. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, none of the early X-Men are given much beyond their powers. Faring worse are the villains of the Hellfire Club. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) gets a meaty role as the big bad and his right-hand woman Emma Frost (January Jones) gets plenty of screen time even though she’s imbued with no personality. That last one isn’t the fault of the writing though. Jones doesn’t seem interested at all in what’s going on around her and gives possibly the worst X performance yet. As for the rest of the evil comrades, you’ll have a hard time even remembering their names. Although the film never reaches the heights of parts one and two, it is packed with enough interesting character moments and exciting action to keep a superhero enthusiast happy.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
The original Kung Fu Panda was a wonderful surprise. I went in expecting a typical Dreamworks animated film full of pop culture references and bodily fluid jokes. Instead I got an awesome kung fu film with a sharp sense of humor and endearing characters. It felt more like something Pixar would make and towered above all other Dreamworks Animation productions. Luckily, this sequel continues on the path laid by the first. Instead of a Shrek the Third, we get something more akin to Toy Story 2. Po (Jack Black) is now known all over Japan as the Dragon Warrior. He fights alongside the Furious Five and keeps the country safe. But an evil peacock, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), has harnessed an evil weapon that is impervious to kung fu and he intends to use it to reclaim his place as a ruler of Japan. Using this plot, director Jennifer Yuh crafts what is thus far the best action film of the summer. The humor is still evident, but it has been scaled back in favor of exhilarating fights and uncovering more about Po’s backstory. This is a rare animated sequel that nearly equals its predecessor. The only things holding it back are a less engaging story and villain than in part one. The animation is gorgeous throughout, and I feel it’ll be hard for any other animated film this year to top this. If Cars 2 ends up as mediocre as it looks, then maybe Kung Fu Panda will finally walk away with an Oscar come next February.