X Men: First Class and Super 8 both aspire to little more than a couple of hours of summer's entertainment, directed primarily at young people interested in comic books, science fiction, horror, monsters, action and other young people. But the two films approach this task with instructively divergent toolkits.
First Class runs 132 minutes, which is the length of a typical James Bond film. That doesn't seem accidental. Like Bond films, there is a super-villain, a glamorous villainess (portrayed by January Jones, who has evidently decided to give up even trying to act), numerous locations usually built in a sleek and sterile style that looked modernistic back in the 1960s (there is a Pentagon set which is a straight lift from Dr. Strangelove), random transitions to far-flung locations and an overall sterility and lack of suspense as to whether the hero will survive. This is partly the inherent handicap of a prequel -- all the important characters must needs survive, and newly-minted characters have about a 50% chance of being Red Shirts. Even worse, the X powers tend toward the really weird and difficult to visualize on film (though not in comics). Poor James McEvoy as Xavier keeps having to put two fingers to his temples and squint like a turbo-charged Kreskin, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto has been compelled, in order to demonstrate he is practicing his magnetic powers, to make bizarre and comical hand and finger gestures which would embarrass a casino lounge magician.
The sterility of the visual vocabulary extends to the entire low-stakes story, emphasized by the pounding, emphatic and pointlessly bombastic music sore by Henry Jackman, who seems determined at this early point in his career that he can write music just as terrible as that written by the likes of James Horner, Alan Silvestri and other musical sausage-grinders.
Still, it's a pleasant time-passer, and you have to like any film that begins with a sleek silver-haired Nazi Kevin Bacon speaking what sounds like impeccable German and shooting the hero's mother in front of him. Christolph Walz would be proud. Sadly, the film never tops that sequence.
Super 8 is no less engineered and calculated, but the template it uses had more authenticity when it was created in the 1980s. As everyone down to your uncle who talks too loud at holiday dinners as noted, Super 8 is Spielberg once removed, with a group of plucky kids from 1979 stumbling into a big adult adventure and fumbling through some coming-of-age moments. Also, there's absent and distracted parents and a location away from the coastal media centers that dominate American storytelling.
It's grittier, less obviously designed (although just as carefully--getting all those late 70s toys must have been quite a job), more based on human foibles and relationships -- parents, friends, budding romance, the desire for adventure. It is, as movie executives like to say, more "relateable." It's the Spielberg spin on Rockwell America, flawed, but allowing love and perseverance to triumph at last.
A closer examination shows that the film has an almost equal debt to the hapless M. Night Shyamalan in its use of phony suspense, red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs, an overuse of the Val Lewton "bus" (a cheap shock created by a needlessly blunt cut or loud sound cue), a disappointing denouement and more importantly, the central gimmick of the story having no real bearing on the story's meaning.
How many movie monsters have NOT been disappointments when finally seen? The Monster played by Boris Karloff, the Alien in the films of that title and...can't think what else. (I don't even think much of King Kong, who looks like any child's toy gorilla.) And giving a CGI monster a close-up is a sure-fire fail. But more importantly, the title and the first half-hour of the film set up the gimmick that the kids' super 8mm filmmaking will have an important bearing on the film, and as the second act begins we see that the camera will catch some important information which will be revealed at the right time.
Except that it doesn't. It doesn't reveal much, and what it does is found out by a lot of other characters in some other way. So at no time is the super 8 film indispensable -- not to the characters in the film and not to the audience watching the film. It literally has no bearing on the way the story develops. It's as if the filmmakers had never seen a Hitchcock film. If you've got a McGuffin, even if it's not important to the audience, it's important to the people in the movie. In Super 8, the super 8 doesn't even matter.
There's one thing for sure. Elle Fanning is a full-on, flat-out movie star. Even more than Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, this actress barely out of her own childhood has the potential to be one of the most powerful and charismatic film stars of an emerging generation. She does whatever she is asked to do in this film supremely well (and give the film credit for never trying to make her look stupid or silly). But what makes her a star is that she is fascinating doing nothing. Just looking off at the horizon until the director calls "cut." She is much more of a phenomenon than the Big Scary Thing the Air Force is trying to hide.