Cinema: X-Men: First Class
Director – Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriter – Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Stars – James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne.
In 2000 Bryan Singer’s X-Men arrived in multiplexes and effectively kicked off the craze for superhero movies that has dominated the box office ever since. 11 years later and 38 years earlier, Singer is producing the film that goes back to 1962 to depict the origin of everyone’s favourite mutant team, and show just how Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr ended up on opposing sides. And it’s brilliant.
X-Men: First Class shows Charles and Erik as young men, the former (James McAvoy) downing yards of ale and chatting up hot undergraduates in Oxford, the latter (Michael Fassbender) hunting down the Nazi war criminals that killed his family in the Holocaust. A common enemy brings them together as they team up with the CIA to stop the dastardly Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his Hellfire Club from hijacking the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the help of their newly-recruited ‘first class’ of X-Men.
Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn has finally got his shot at an X-Men film since his near-miss with The Last Stand, and he runs with it from the word go. In fact, he seems to have got away with making a 60s James Bond film only with superpowers. The film is stuffed with homages to those classic 60s movies, with split-screen training montages, set designers running riot in evil lairs and the costume designers coming dangerously close to Austin Powers campery with Emma Frost’s outrageous get-ups. In fact, with Michael Fassbender striding purposefully across exotic scenery, switching languages at the drop of a hat and threatening torture and death to all enemies who cross his path, it could almost be an alternate reality 007 movie.
The film has a great visual style and dynamic energy to it. Some scenes, like the trailer money-shot of the submarine coming out of the sea, and an attack by Jason Flemyng’s teleporting Azazel, are flawless, but the film suffers occasionally from its brutally short production time, and a couple of the special effects look slightly unfinished. This never damages the film as a whole, but it couldn’t have hurt to give Vaughn a couple more months to finish polishing the edges.
The action sequences are exactly what we have all come to expect from a comic book movie. But what sets this above many of its peers is the cast and the script. Purists may moan that the line-up does not remotely resemble the comic book First Class, but each of the characters work perfectly within the film. The young mutants are all brilliantly cast and it’s only a shame that they don’t have more screen time together. Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence is the stand-out as the young, insecure Raven (before she became known as Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult is great as the awkward genius Hank McCoy, but struggles with his performance once he was under the heavy prosthetics that turn him into Beast.
As for the villains, Kevin Bacon has the most fun he’s had in years as the slick Shaw, and while January Jones’ Emma Frost was fun, she felt sadly diminished from her icy, masterful comic book counterpart.
But the film is really about those two iconic characters: Professor X and Magneto. James McAvoy is surprisingly charming and funny as Charles, reimagining the character as he was before he had the weight of the world dumped on his shoulders. At the same time, though, he still possesses that magnanimous intelligence in his eyes, and the first sparks of the great leader he will become. He is just narrowly outshone by Michael Fassbender, who has the benefit of playing the more interesting character. His Erik is layered and complex, sympathetic and damaged, dangerous and sexy, and, as with McAvoy, damn funny. Together, the chemistry between them is the heart of the film. Watching them hunt down mutants together, swigging champagne and sharing memories, you begin to hope that maybe Vaughn will deviate from the comics, and maybe Erik will decide that peace is an option after all, and that they’ll all live happily ever after as BFFs. Their friendship is touching, believable, and utterly doomed, the film is essentially a tragic love story.
X-Men: First Class goes beyond the standard action fare. It is laugh-out-loud funny, with more emotion and big moral questions than you’d see in most blockbusters. Vaughn continues to not put a foot wrong in his career, and his latest film raises the 2011 bar that was already set pretty high by Thor. One of the best films you’re likely to see this year.
By Abigail Chandler
X-Men: First Class is released 1st June by 20th Century Fox.