X-Men: First Class Review
It may technically be a prequel to the X-Men film franchise begun in 2000 by director Bryan Singer, but X-Men: First Class deserves to stand on its own merits. Hitting the reboot button after the mediocre trilogy closer The Last Stand, and the subsequent equally mediocre Wolverine spin-off, was a wise move on the part of the studio: not only does it jettison the expensive cast from the earlier films, it also allows them to tackle the characters and themes from a fresh angle. Singer has been brought back in to the fold (originally to direct before stepping aside and staying on as producer) along with a new team of writers and a director on his way up (Matthew Vaughn - Kick-Ass), and the end product is a more than worthy entry in the series – certainly the best since 2003’s X2.
Contrary to almost every other recent comic-book adaptation, First Class is set in the past; 1962 to be precise. It’s a brave move: the list of failed one-film franchises in Hollywood is strewn with comics adapted as period pieces: remember Rocketeer? The Shadow? The Phantom? It can’t be coincidence that the most financially successful superheroes are those that were updated to the present day.
Perversely though, the period pieces often end up being a good deal more fun. The past offers up plenty of opportunities if you’re a comic book: a more innocent time allows for less ambiguity between good and evil (especially if you’re fighting the Nazis), as well as more plausible excuses for colourful costumes and catchy monikers. But then perhaps the lack of ambiguity is precisely why modern audiences haven’t warmed to them quite as much as their darker latter day equivalents.
First Class tries to have its cake and eat it by staying true to the underlying serious themes of the original trilogy - those of alienation and persecution - whilst revelling in the colourfulness of the Sixties setting. From the language (Xavier’s “groovy” chat-up lines) to the choice of music on the soundtrack to the fashion sense of its characters, Vaughn clearly had a ball making his own version of that 60s staple, the spy caper.
But it starts back where the first film began – in a wartime concentration camp as the young Erik Lehnsherr is torn from his parents, whereupon his mutant powers are forcibly revealed. Around the same time the young telepath Charles Xavier meets another mutant, shapeshifter Raven, at home in New York. Cut to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis is in full swing. CIA operative Moira MacTaggert discovers the crisis is being engineered by powerful mutant mastermind Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leading her to recruit newly-graduated genetics expert Xavier (James McAvoy) to assist in stopping him. Xavier in turn recruits Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) who has been systematically killing formers Nazis in hiding and is on the trail of Shaw: the man who killed his parents all those years ago. Together the two launch a school for fellow mutants and try to stop World War III from beginning.
At over two hours long the film packs plenty of story in, but it successfully juggles the need to cover a lot of narrative ground while mixing in plenty of mutant action along with the odd dash of philosophical debate. At times the pacing feels a bit rushed – not something that could be said of the Singer-directed entries – and the lack of acting heavyweights like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart inevitably means this entry feels noticeably less epic in scale. With many top tier mutants unavailable at this point in the timeline, Xavier's students are something of a second XI, which will come as a disappointment to some.
But McAvoy and Fassbender turn in strong performances of their own (in particular the latter, who turns Magneto in to a sympathetic, almost debonair anti-hero), and what the film might lack in gravitas it makes up for with bouncy humour and bags of energy. The younger cast acquit themselves well, while Bacon’s charm-oozing villain could have come from any one of a dozen Bond films (his submarine HQ is surely a nod to that most venerable British spy). The action-packed final showdown off the Cuban coast delivers the goods in all respects. Indeed, X-Men: First Class lives up to its title: it’s an immaculately mounted ride with all the bells and whistles you could hope for.