So, here it is. After four previous ventures into the Marvel back catalogue, 20th Century Fox present X-Men: First Class. It’s ostensibly a prequel to the long-running series, but it also aims to resuscitate the franchise after the insufferable one-two punch of Last Stand and Wolverine. It arrives without much fanfare and the distinct lack of anticipation is understandable. In a decade that seen Marvel form their own studio to produce faithful adaptations of their work, Fox’s X-Men needed a shot in the arm. Which is what happens when you go from Bryan Singer to Brett Ratner.
Enter Matthew Vaughn. At one point he was set to direct Last Stand, but would eventually get his comic book fix with the wonderfully juvenile Kick-Ass. For whatever reason, Vaughn couldn’t get away from those mutants. With Singer on board as an executive producer and a talented cast, it pleases me to report that X-Men: First Class is fine summer entertainment. Does it surpass X2? Not quite, but second best isn’t so bad.
First Class opens in Poland, 1944. A young Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) is being led into a Nazi concentration camp, when a fit of rage unleashes his latent powers. It’s a loving recreation of the scene from Singer’s 11-year-old original, and I had to go back and watch the first film to see where Singer’s footage ends and Vaughn’s begins. It is here that Erik crosses paths with the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a powerful mutant who can absorb energy and use it to his advantage. He witnesses Erik’s abilities and spares him from the gas chamber.
Across the globe, a young Charles Xavier encounters another mutant – the shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Mystique), changing the course of his life forever. It is the first of many parallels that First Class makes between Lehnsherr and Xavier. Their friendship and eventual rivalry is the main crux of the picture.
Events shift to 1962. An adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) is tracking down former Nazi officers in hope of finding Shaw, and Charles (James McAvoy) is publishing his thesis on mutation. In Nevada, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is on a stake-out at the mutant-friendly Hellfire Club, where she sees Shaw and cohorts Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) using their powers. MacTaggert turns to Xavier for help, eventually convincing him to reveal mutant kind to the CIA. Together, they go after Shaw, who plans to use the Cuban Missile Crisis as a catalyst for World War III. The mission brings Xavier and Lehnsherr together.
The X-Men comics struck a nerve due to smartly integrated social commentary, and Marvel’s allegorical view of racism hasn’t been forgotten by Vaughn. The comics shrewdly incorporated real-world history and the 60s setting proves to be First Class’ most impressive element. There’s a playful tone to the picture that echoes the free-spirited feel of the decade, while playing up the tension and paranoia that the Cuban crisis inspired. This is a full blockbuster, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a longer cut in existence. Vaughn tackles the myriad plot developments with care, and it’s a credit to him that the film remains coherent.
There are a few action highlights, including Shaw’s explosive assault on a CIA facility, but First Class is primarily an adult-oriented character study. There are long stretches of subtitled dialogue and discussions on the nature of humanity that may bore children in the audience. Vaughn’s mature approach should be commended, however – this is certainly the most textural entry in the series.
He’s aided by a cast that appears to be having a blast. Bacon chews the scenery as Shaw, a performance that teeters on a knife-edge between hammy and sinister. His theatrics give him a Bond villain vibe, and while he isn’t introduced in a revolving chair with a cat on his lap, the comparison stands. Less able is Jones as Frost, who looks phenomenal in a series of tight-fitting outfits that disguise her crippling lack of range. The other newbies, which include Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), inject special effects and humour when they’re required, but never develop beyond their core personality traits.
Thankfully, we have Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who is given his own story arc in this over-stuffed narrative. His journey from prehensile-footed scientist to furry Beast is a good one, although the transition is diluted somewhat by sub-par prosthetics work. He looks pretty ridiculous, but the schlocky nature of the material only strengthens Vaughn’s retro aesthetic.
McAvoy and Fassbender give the film its resonance; so good in their respective roles that you quickly forget about Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. It is Xavier and Lehnsherr’s friendship that defines First Class, and the film soars whenever Vaughn focuses on their meeting of the minds. While McAvoy is brilliant as posh toff Charles, putting his own spin on the role, it is Fassbender who walks away with the film. His Erik is everything you want Magneto to be: Intelligent, resourceful, cunning and devious. A scene where he finds a trio of Nazis in a tavern (shades of Inglorious Basterds), is more intimidating than anything McKellen did. This is one mutant you don’t want to fuck with.
The plot-threads intertwine brilliantly for the customary showdown, as the missile brigade is unleashed on our “heroes”. Vaughn finally lets-loose with the mutant carnage, and each character gets their moment to shine. The climax is tight and exciting, but curiously lacking in suspense. It is, after all, a prequel. We know the fate of these characters, so the final 20-minutes is merely a case of joining the dots. Xavier’s horror over his sudden paralysis would have been more powerful if we weren’t waiting for it to happen.
Ultimately, my biggest problem with First Class is the same one that hampered Singer’s original: It’s all set-up for a new trilogy. The story is a personal one, and it isn’t quite the epic those trailers led you to believe. In that respect, it leaves you wanting more…which I guess was Fox’s aim with the film. Flaws aside, it is a highly entertaining summer diversion that rejuvenates a series that was on life support. It zips along at breakneck speed, offers enough spectacle and drama, and saves the franchise from mediocrity.
Roll on X-Men: Sophomore Year.