Following on from GeekTown’s restricted release of our teaser views and initial verdict on Twentieth Century Fox’s latest offering to the X-men saga I am delighted to finally unveil the hotly anticipated review! Prequels are a risky business and after the haphazard Wolverine origins story (which granted, did have naked Hugh Jackman in it, but even that couldn’t truly redeem it) I can safely bet that every single reviewer was prepared for another superhero nosedive and resounding cinematic belly flop. But gosh, I do enjoy being pleasantly surprised. I should lead on where we left off…
“Funny, engrossing and seductive, X-Men: First Class has claws and curves in all the right places.”
One of the central reasons that X-Men: First Class is so very enjoyable and far easier to subscribe to than its predecessors is because instead of creating a parallel reality, it slips the illusion around our current world with significant and humanity shaping historical events. Unbeknownst to most modern historians, major political clashes such as the Cuban missile crisis and Nazi Germany’s choke-hold during WWII were witnessed and transformed by mutants. Director Matthew Vaughn half jokingly pointed out during the roundtable interview at the weekend that mutant interference makes a lot more sense than what was actually reported during the infamous nuclear standoff between Russia and the USA and he’s not far wrong. Whilst the story is outrageous, it is so in the best way, in a way that you can get behind and cheer on with a big grin.
The main action of X-Men: First Class is set in the 1960s prior to the turbulence of Nixon’s reign, at the height of the Cold War and the dawn of the Space era. However we are taken slightly further back still, to the 1940s and Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier’s incredibly opposite childhoods, where the boy who will become Magneto is discovered and tortured in a concentration camp in Poland whilst his antithesis enjoyed and exploited the spoils of wealth and telepathy. You may experience déjà vu as the film opens, frame for frame, the way that the original X-men movie did with Magneto’s dark initiation into mutant life. Matthew Vaughn elaborates on Bryan Singer’s introduction for Erik by delving further into his butchered childhood of murder, pain and torment at the hands of a power hungry Dr Schmidt; portrayed by a splendidly evil Kevin Bacon. In the same way that Wolverine was manipulated and molded by William Stryker in X2, Erik is depicted as a mutant test subject. Erik’s story from frightened child to vengeful mutant adult creates the backbone for X-Men: First Class.
The film is automatically absorbing as it balances the truer elements of superhero fantasy without sacrificing characterization and tone for gratuitous explosions and incoherent, over packed storylines. The cast is a real dolly mixture at first glance and it comes as no surprise that it left many anticipators with their hackles raised. Sizable talent such as Oliver Platt and Jason Flemyng (Azazel) play in modest supporting roles alongside lesser known actors and actresses like Lucas Till (Havoc) and Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) in considerably larger character roles. However, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have done a marvellous job defining each and every character, giving them all a sense of individuality and self containment that we arguably haven’t seen since the original X-men movie. Notable performances include an unexpected surge of acting prowess from Nicholas Hoult who plays a startlingly convincing Hank McCoy. From child star to teenage TV drama and now Hollywood, all I can say is bravo Nick!
The characters effectively straddle the spectrum between Good, Evil and Misled with charm and intelligence and just the right amount of dark, raw emotion that really makes a great superhero movie. Charles Xavier is a prime example as he is an extraordinarily difficult character to relate to, but James McAvoy does an admirable job as he leads the audience through Xavier’s cocky handsome young adulthood into his future as the infamous Professor X. The journey shows the bald, wheelchair bound and monstrously powerful authority figure we had grown to recognize as an energetic, virile, fun loving young man with a full head of hair and one hell of a sprint time! McAvoy is a credible and charismatic Xavier and worthy of quite hefty praise for helping to endear the audience to someone who is, on paper, quite an unapproachable character. X-Men: First Class elegantly weaves a variety of intriguing and sensitive character relationships, not merely through Xavier and Erik but also a beautifully realized Mystique who provides a dominating outlet for the X-men’s sense of responsibility, vanity and mutant identity. Michael Fassbender is a devilishly attractive homage to classic Bond, only infinitely cooler, in his embodiment of Erik Lehnsherr and in this critic’s opinion, he carries the film. Alongside Fassbender, Kevin Bacon gives one of the finest performances of his seesaw career. He is the perfect villain; frightening, smooth and gifted. So many comic book villains have turned out to be lamentably camp and underdeveloped when they’ve reached the big screen but Shaw is a refreshing slice of horrifying.
In truth, the film is not without its flaws but in many ways these little foibles endearingly add to the entertainment! For example the rather adorable way that Fassbender’s Irish accent starts to trickle into his passionate display during the film’s climax or the lacklustre ghost of the deleted love story between Charles and the vaguely redundant CIA agent Moira. I’ll let you discover the other failings for yourself because that really is part of the fun, no? You get to moan at length about what you would have done differently and it’s one of the few movie genres where everybody gets away with acting like they could be the Coppola of comic books. But there is definitely much more praise than disappointment to be had for X-Men: First Class and overall its blemishes are minor in comparison to the film’s epic embrace of the genre, its deft handling of a young cast in another century and the carefully balanced relationship between superhero morality and human adventure.