Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fasbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
Duration: 132 mins
It’s been a rough few years for the X-Men series. The original trilogy ended on a whimper with Brett Ratter’s The Last Stand, and the less said about the flapping opus that explained the origins of Wolverine giganto-sideburns, the better. Now Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughan is on hand to salvage what he can of the neglected franchise and he accomplishes with style and gusto with X-Men: First Class. Though far from perfect, it’s a magnificent return to form for the series, and a terrific standalone film, closer in spirit to JJ Abrahm’s 2009 Star Trek prebootquel.
Set primarily in the early ’60s, the plot follows the origins of the first X team, as they square off against a mutant conspiracy to incite a global nuclear crisis. Played against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film uses some creative licence to put a new spin on the historic battle of superpowers. However, the real core of the story here is the birth of the friendship-cum-rivalry between Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lehnsherr. Both characters are magnificently personified by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively. These two men are so radically different, yet their friendship feels utterly authentic. Fassbender brings a passion and quiet confidence to the role of Magneto while McAvoy lends Xavier an unexpected swagger, with a combination of kindness and cockiness. Both radiate charisma, and it’s no exaggeration to say that that almost everything that’s great about this film is tied directly to these characters. It’s a wonderful thing to see, and witnessing the origins of this complex relationship actually lends weight to the original trilogy.
Of course it wouldn’t be an X-movie without a small army of mutants popping up on screen, and there’s plenty more to the film than just Magneto and Xavier. The young team of X-men are a likable bunch with the standouts being the buddies in blue, Beast and Mystique. The group overall has good chemistry and their antics afford the film some genuinely funny moments. Regrettably, the movies villains are far less interesting. Kevin Bacon hits all the right notes as the immortal-ish antagonist Sebastian Shaw, but the character simply isn’t fleshed out enough and his motivations are convoluted. Meanwhile Shaw’s right hand lady, uber mutant Emma Frost, is rendered completely unthreatening by an utterly wooden performance from Mad Men’s January Jones.
X-men First Class is coated with a layer of camp cheesiness that sometimes works perfectly, yet other times feel entirely at odd with the sincere performances and believable characters. It certainly suits the 1960s setting, but moments such as seeing Magneto in full comic book regalia felt so out of place it’s, literally, cringe inducing. Not helping the matter is the inconsistent quality of both the physical and digital effects. It’s not a stretch to say that the majority of the effects work in this film is actually less convincing than in X2, a 9 year old film. X-Men 2 also offered superior action direction, with much tighter staging. The battles in First Class are engaging, but far from exhilarating. Still, the film has a tremendous sense of style and makes great use of set design, music and editing to recall both its ’60s setting and comic book origins. Even trite clichés like training montages are made exciting and tackled skilfully here.
A terrific rebirth for the series, and a worthy reconciliation for jaded fans, First Class rewards die-hards with winks and nods to the franchises legacy, while at the same time is fresh and accessible to new comers. It’s certainly not firing on all cylinders, but the elements that work here work tremendously. It’s a testament to all that’s great in the film that despite its flaws, it’s still a must see.