After the debacle that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the X-Men franchise was best left to lie for a while. Never let it be said however that Hollywood is unwilling to beat a dead horse; out come the whips to give us X-Men: First Class.
Except somewhere along the way, they actually made a classy, fun, interesting film.
By giving us a prequel/reboot/origin story, 20th Century Fox and Marvel breath fresh life back into the flailing franchise. Add to that a – mostly – top-notch cast and a story set within, but just to the side of, real events and you get the movie X-Men fans have been dying to see: how did Professor X and Magneto meet, become friends and eventually end up enemies?
X-Men: First Class opens with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the opening of the original X-Men film, and with that announces that the boys are back in town. It then diverges from that film as we discover that the young Erik is tasked by a German scientist studying human genetics to prove his power, and we learn it only comes when he is upset. Pause for a moment and consider the shot structure of this vital scene; at first it seems a warm, almost welcoming office/study until the reverse shot shows us the cold laboratory and we understand this scientist is experimenting on people.
At the same time we meet a young Charles, a product of upper class upbringing, safe in his country estate. The contrast between the two worlds, and how it molds the men these two would grow to become, is obvious but not overplayed – it just is. While we see Charles growing up, attending university, partying and using his mind powers to pick up girls, we follow Erik’s quest for revenge as he hunts Nazis across the globe, ruthlessly using his power to avenge his parents and soothe his pain.
To carry such a heavy story you need two actors with strength and ability, and the producers found them in James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Make no mistake, this is Fassbender’s movie. McAvoy plays a large part, and the chemistry these two share is what drives much of the feeling in this movie, but they could have called this film Magneto and no one would mind. Without being a carbon copy of Ian McKellen’s superb performance of the same role, Fassbender owns the character, displaying true heart as well as foreshadowing the darkness. With the 60s setting, it is any wonder that Hollywood watchers predict him as a candidate for the next Bond – he has the intensity of Connery and Craig backed up by rugged charm. The Academy is calling.
The rest of the cast, with one exception, are no slouches either. Kevin Bacon, as the German scientist and villain Sebastian Shaw, carries enough menace of a strong antagonist without overshadowing the story or the other actors. Jennifer Lawrence, as Raven/Mystique, is the vessel through which First Class portrays how the mutants are outcasts. So desperate is she to appear “normal” that she continually spends concentration on hiding her mutant blue form, and eagerly hitches on to Hank McCoy’s (Nicholas Hoult) plans for a “cure” – all the while intrigued by Erik’s argument that she shouldn’t have to hide and if the world doesn’t like it, the world can go to hell.
It is January Jones as Emma Frost who lets the side down. She looks fantastic in costume, all bare midriff and cleavage, but her facial expressions and acting move barely beyond the wooden. One wonders if she was just dreaming of being back of the Mad Men set.
There is one geekgasmic cameo in this film, and another that will have you “Hey, that’s -“. Both are amusing.
There are a few mild problems. A couple of the effects sequences aren’t convincing and particular plot points fail to stay true (US and Soviet fleets would not sail into each other), but the final resolution is ultimately very satisfying, leading into what one hopes is a resurgence of the X-Men franchise.
Overall, director Matthew Vaughn and the committee of writers (including original director Bryan Singer) have managed to weave what could have been a mess of Wolverine proportions into something coherent, intelligent, provoking and above all fun. And that’s what movies are supposed to be about.