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This summer we’re being deluged by even more superheroes than normal, especially if you count Captain Jack Sparrow, and since that character has long since stopped making mortal sense I say lets. Most of these movies aren’t suited for everyone. Much as I loved Thor I’m willing to recognize that some moviegoers simply can’t suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy sequences involving horses racing across an outerspacey rainbow bridge guarded by a sword-wielding Idris Elba. Most of Marvel’s superhero movies have played out that way, with a lot of pretty crazy stuff thrown up on screen which the average dude can’t always get behind. Even the more grounded Marvel movies like Iron Man are often so interconnected to comic book mythology that less savvy users end up getting lost.
For some moviegoers, too much imagination is a bad thing. There are different reasons to like or dislike different kinds of movies, sometimes it’s just a question of taste. Some people don’t like superhero movies, others don’t like ghosts, a few people can’t stand spy films, others have no use for stories set in outer space. But you know that friend who makes fun of you, any time you see a genre movie? I’m not talking about the guy who has no interest in Lord of the Rings just because he’s not into sword fighting. I mean the guy who only sees movies set in the real world and then shies away from anything involving ideas outside the realm of the box that comprises his normal life. Present a scenario that’s too fantastical and, no matter how well written it is, there’s a certain percentage of people who will always check out.
Enter X-Men: First Class, the first superhero movie since The Dark Knight capable of connecting with just about any kind of audience, even one without much of a fantasy life. It’s not only that it’s really good, it is, it’s the ways in which it’s good that make director Matthew Vaughn’s summer blockbuster such a perfect must see for everyone, even your buddies who’d kick the shit out of you if they knew you’ve read works of E.E. Doc Smith (after of course, you explained to them who he is). Here’s how X-director Matthew Vaughn creates that kind of accessibility and connects his mutant movie with people whether they have the genre background necessary to go along on his superhero ride or not.
You Can Get Used To Anything Show the average person the above picture of a flying spaghetti monster and some will instantly recoil, put off by something so completely unfamiliar they can’t process it. Show that same someone that same picture every day for a week, and by day seven they’ll be used to it. It won’t seem so strange. The X-Men have been around for decades and decades and, whether people wanted them or not, nearly everyone on the planet has been exposed to the idea of a world populated by mutants, in one way or another. The notion of a man with metal claws sprouting out of his hands is no longer really all that strange.
It’s why a lot of the more original projects you hear being bandied about in Hollywood never actually get done, and it’s why if you’re going to make a movie about guys racing around in a computer on cycles made of light it had better be a sequel to something people already know about. It’s why people will show up to see, and enjoy a fantasy movie called Lord of the Rings but won’t show up to see and enjoy a fantasy movie called Stardust. The former is an adaptation of a book Led Zepplin once wrote a song about, the other is something they’ve never heard of.
Keeping It Real The Harry Potter movies are about magical wizards and dragons and mermaids, but people, even unimaginative people, seem to go along with it. Why does it work? In part it’s the way JK Rowling constructed her story. Yes, the Harry Potter movies contain all sorts of genre-based fantasy magic, but most of that magic takes place in the very identifiable, real world. Harry’s story starts out in the suburbs, where he’s just this kid with these two awful foster parents. Anyone can wrap their head around that. Even when he’s whisked off to Hogwarts, the story stays grounded in the familiar reality of a world people already know. Yes Hogwarts is magical, but it’s also set up like a pretty run of the mill private school, the kind of school a lot of people in the audience might have attended.
X-Men: First Class, unlike Thor and its fantastical world of Asgard, takes place entirely in the very real world. Not just the real world, but a real world which has already happened and been subsequently studied by nearly everyone in the film’s audience. It’s a period movie, set in the midst of the Cuban missile crises. It presents the notion that somewhere, hidden underneath the history we already know, was some sort of secret mutant involvement. It’s set in a familiar place, which makes it easier for the audience to accept all that crazy teleportation and mutant mind-reading which happens there. No imagination required.
Costumes & Crazy Powers It’s hard to convince people that a man can stretch like elastic, or that a guy with a ring can create things out of thin air using the power of his imagination. It’s easier to convince them that a British guy in a suit might be able to read their mind. In part it’s because Americans already believe that anyone with an accent automatically knows more than them, but also because it’s such a specific, simple power. Most of the powers in X-Men: First Class work that way, it feels like a movie in which normal people just happen to be able to do this one thing. The movie takes it far enough to keep it entertaining for the genre friendly members of its audience, but never takes any of it far enough to lose your buddy who’d rather be at home drinking beer and watching Walker: Texas Ranger.
What really matters to those Walker: Texas Ranger fans is that the X-Men look normal while they’re doing whatever it is they do. I like to think of this as The Matrix solution. Want your heroes to wear matching costumes? You have two choices: Military camo or black leather. Anything else risks losing half your audience. Most people can’t imagine a world in which anyone would wear brightly colored spandex. Superman and Spider-Man can get away with it because they’ve been wearing neon so long we’re used to it, but throw those brightly colored costumes the X-Men wear in the comics on them, and prepare to be mocked. The first batch of X-Men movies solved that problem with The Matrix method, by clothing all its heroes in boring black leather. People can get behind black leather, if it’s good enough for our rock stars, then its good enough for our superheroes. X-Men: First Class solves the problem by generally not having its characters wear uniforms at all. They don’t get into costume until the movie’s final moments and by then we’re already so invested in the world built up around them that we’re far too busy following along to care. Or rather, you’ll be too busy. Personally, I like spandex.
X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn’s previous two movies did everything differently from X-Men: First Class. Those films pushed movie imagination to the limits of creativity. Stardust, for example, was a movie about a falling star given human form, who teams up with a boy from a village no one leaves and a bunch of gay air pirates to fight witches in a magical, far off land. Try to convince the guy in the next cubicle over to watch Stardust using that plot synopsis, and he’ll have you fired for sexual harassment out of sheer confusion. Both Stardust and Kick-Ass were widely heralded by critics but neither ever really found the big audiences they deserved in theaters. In the case of both films, it seemed to be a problem of imagination. It’s not that Stardust or Kick-Ass didn’t have enough, they had too much.
Movies may be designed primarily to tell fictional stories, but that doesn’t mean everyone who shows up to see them has as much imagination as the screenwriter who invented the tale which unspools in front of us. Some simply can’t wrap their heads around fantastical worlds like Asgard, no matter how perfectly well they’re presented in a movie like Thor. Green Lantern’s crazy, outer space trailers have already left many potential moviegoers confused and baffled, while at the same time exciting and delighting others. X-Men may be about humans with super powers, but imagination isn’t really required to go along for the ride. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need those reality-based people as much as we need those of us with our heads in the clouds. We need both kinds of movies too, and when a movie comes along that so clearly reaches out to both kinds of moviegoers, that’s something special. It’s something worth celebrating.
I’m glad Hollywood is still willing to make movies like Thor and Green Lantern, but don’t be surprised when X-Men: First Class makes more money than either of them. Imagination isn’t for everyone, but X-Men: First Class walks the line between reality and fantasy well enough, that it is.