Denisa and I watched X-Men: First Class this weekend, and I’m happy to say we both enjoyed it. It’s fast paced, has a cool alternate history take on the Cuban Missile Crisis, good actors, a fun script, great effects. A very good example of a superhero movie done right. Three stars, easy. Maybe three and a half. (On a side note, I feel like the recent flux of superhero movies is a good thing and a bad thing. A lot of good, solid movies are coming out–good. But they’re all coming out together–bad. It’s like coming across a great apple pie when you’ve already eaten a seven course meal. That apple pie could be fantastic, but you’re just not going to want to eat it. Part of me wants to hold off on some of these superhero movies until after Hollywood decides they don’t make any money–just so I can have something to tide me over until Hollywood then later revisits that decision and starts making good superhero movies again.)
Of course, part of me also has to wonder why it was that I enjoyed the movie so much–especially when I knew how most of it was going to turn out. If you’re an X-Men fan, then you know that this is all about the origins of the X-Men, and you know certain things are going to happen. Beast is going to become Beast. Charles and Erik will have a falling out. That helmet that Shaw is sporting all through the film? Erik will end up with it. None of this is a big surprise (well, the director took some liberties with some of the comic canon, but such is life), and yet it’s interesting watching it all play out.
Why is this?
I suppose it’s the same thing that makes movies like Apollo 13 and Titanic also interesting. You know how it’s going to end, but you want to find out how it gets to that ending. The latest Star Trek movie did the same thing–showing the audience how the status quo became so status. So much of the time, we assume that the reason we watch something is to find out what happens next. I don’t think that’s really the case. We watch something to see how the characters respond and react to various situations. We want to know why, not just what. Why is way more important in many ways.
Think about the questions kids ask. Why is way more popular than what. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why did that happen?” Even when there’s a what question, it’s followed up almost inevitably by a why. “What are you doing?” “Why?”
Seen in this light, a lot of the actual plot of a movie or book doesn’t matter–as long as the characters are interesting and respond consistently to the events of the plot. As an author, sometimes I want to increase the tension in a book or scene by keeping some elements of the plot secret–thinking that the big reveal when they become public knowledge will be a great, memorable moment. But that’s sort of what M. Night Shyamalan tried to build his career as a director on. How did that work out for him?
If your characters are strong and believable, and they’re in real danger (physical, emotional, or whatever), that’s all the tension your plot really needs to provide. That’s not saying that having a twisty turny plot won’t help–but you can’t do it the other way around. You can’t have a twisty turny plot with crummy characters and hope to hold your audience enthralled.
Or are there exceptions I’m not thinking of? Speak up!
And on a final note, Matthew Vaughn (the director) has now officially become a Director I am Following Closely. Mainly because of his four movies, I’ve seen and really enjoyed all four. X-Men, Kick-Ass, Stardust, and Layer Cake. Those are four really strong movies. He hasn’t had a dud yet. Not even a middling movie, in my book. Bravo, sir. What have you got for me next?