For X-Men, the heat is on

[25 January 2011]

By Geoff Boucher

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — The movie posters promise that “X-Men: First Class” will be released on June 3, but on Tuesday cameras were still rolling on the Fox film’s set, and director Matthew Vaughn, making his biggest major studio feature film to date, sounded like a man running out of time.

“I’m at that stage where I feel like a boxer against the ropes,” the director said as his crew prepared for the next shot on a location set in Long Beach, Calif. “I’m just throwing punches and taking them as they come and making sure I don’t hit the canvas.”

In the pages of Marvel Comics, the X-Men have been the ultimate outsiders for decades — even other superheroes view the strange mutant crew with mistrust, prejudice and disdain. So it’s fitting that “First Class,” the fifth Hollywood adventure for the heroes, will arrive in theaters this summer with so much to prove and plenty of doubters. For the all-new cast (led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) the challenge is to replace the familiar faces of the franchise; for producer Bryan Singer the challenge is to recapture the affection of comic-book movie fans; and for Vaughn the challenge is, well, to actually finish making the film.

“We’re filming at the moment. We’ve a lot to get done,” said a weary Vaughn, whose credits include memorable but modest-grossing indie fare such as “Kick-Ass” and “Layer Cake.” “I’ve never worked under such time pressure. The good thing about the independent world is I never even knew if I was going to get distribution. I’m used to finishing a film and then crossing your fingers that someone is going to like it. This is totally doing it the other way around. We’ve definitely got a release date, and we’ve got to make it.”

Vaughn is famous for firebrand candor, and the British filmmaker isn’t turning meek under the pressure. Asked whether he’s concerned about the glut of superhero film competition this summer — with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Green Lantern” and “Thor” — Vaughn said that, if anything, it’s the other guys who should be nervous. “With ‘Green Lantern,’ I don’t know about that one, I couldn’t get my head around the trailer, to be honest ... look, I will say the following: X-Men as a brand is bigger than Captain America, Thor and the Green Lantern, all put together.”

And that is the X-factor that Fox is counting on. The four mutant-hero movies to date have pulled in $1.53 billion in worldwide box office, and even when the hardcore fans of the comics grumbled about the quality of the movie (as they did with the Brett Ratner’s 2006 installment, “X-Men: The Last Stand”), many of them still bought tickets just so they could join in the intense Internet debates. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s apathy. And to date, there has been no apathy when it comes to the X-Men characters that created a publishing bonanza for Marvel in the 1980s and 1990s.

“First Class” is being described as an origin story by the studio and is set in the 1960s, the same decade that artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee introduced the uncanny X-Men into the cosmic melodrama of their expanding Marvel universe. McAvoy is taking on the role of young Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, and Fassbender is Erik Lehnsherr, the man who will become the evil Magneto.

McAvoy and Fassbinder are taking over movie roles originated by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, respectively, two actors who are practically revered among sci-fi and fantasy fans for their work in the “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings” universes.

McAvoy has flipped between roles of art-house acclaim (“Atonement,” “The Last King of Scotland”) and work in special-effects blockbusters (the first “Chronicles of Narnia” film, “Wanted”), and he said that Stewart’s work as the wheelchair-bound Xavier is something he views as a counterpoint, not as competition.

“This isn’t a reboot so I’m not replacing anyone, in which case you might want to try to be as different as possible and stay away from what had been done before,” McAvoy said on Monday during a break from a rescue scene that required water-tank work. “This is a prequel, so I’m the same character, just younger, but the challenge for me — and for Michael — is to show the same person in a different place in their life; to show someone before they’re this bad guy, before they’re this saint. Charles wasn’t always ... this selfless, sexless monk that he becomes.”

The plot of this film is still under wraps, but it presents a world where super-powered mutants are living in secret and don’t face the public scrutiny and prejudice that are central themes in the earlier films, which are primarily set in the modern day. The friendship of future foes Xavier and Lehnsherr is the heart of the film — Singer says the two have a common cause and different approaches, and he even used the life trajectories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as a shorthand for their veering paths.

Vaughn said the movie will be the first X-Men film without the most famous face of the franchise, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and key characters such as Cyclops, Storm and Jean Grey give way to new screen arrivals such as Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Havok (Lucas Till).

Singer directed the first two “X-Men” films — which many observers cite as the starting-point of more sophisticated treatment of superheroes in cinema — and then left the franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” a movie that failed to capture pop-culture lightning in a bottle as the filmmaker hoped. Now he’s returning as a producer for this installment and still hopes to direct another X-movie in the near future.

He praised Vaughn’s vision and attention to detail and said the problems the production is now facing will be overcome.

“The biggest challenge is introducing an audience to these characters in a different time — characters the audience is familiar with but now see played by younger actors and in a story taking place in a different time. ... You have to put your characters out there and introduce them to a quizzical public that sort of recognizes them. But that very thing is the exciting part of it.”

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