X-Men: First Class
This fifth film in the X-Men franchise is an origin story that takes us back to an earlier time and gives us the backstory of the two central characters Professor X and Magneto. While remaining respectful of its comic book origins, X-Men: First Class breathes new life into the franchise.
The film is set in the early ‘60s, a time of Cold War tensions and distrust. At the same time the world was just starting to learn of the existence of mutants, people with extraordinary powers.
Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) is a professor of genetics at Oxford University, who is using his telepathic powers to impress the girls. Xavier begins to track down fellow mutants, who were often treated as outcasts by those afraid of what they cannot understand. At his sprawling Westchester home he begins to train them, teaching them to harness their peculiar powers.
Erik Lehnsheer (Michael Fassbender) is a survivor of the Nazi death camps, which was where he first discovered his power to bend metal. Now, driven by rage and a thirst for vengeance, he is on the trail of ex-Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile Shaw is a megalomaniac with powers of his own. He is hell bent on starting a nuclear war between the US and Russia, ensuring that his vision for the future of mutantkind will be achieved in a massive conflagration. Which is how Xavier and Eric come to lead a squad of mutant warriors into the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After his work on the mighty Kick Ass last year it is obvious that director Matthew Vaughn knows how to treat a comic book on the screen. X-Men: First Class is a deft mix of comic book fantasy, sci-fi and exciting action sequences that recaptures some of the spirit of Bryan Singer’s first film in the X-Men franchise. This is also a much more enjoyable experience than the disappointingly average origin story featuring Wolverine.
Working from a story by Sheldon Turner and original X-Men director Bryan Singer, Vaughn and regular co-writer Jane Goldman superbly mix fact and fiction with their treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ensuring that the politics don’t slow down the action. There are some spectacular CGI sequences here, but the special effects serve the narrative rather than overwhelming the material as often happens with this kind of big budget action film.
Vaughn has assembled a solid ensemble cast to bring the early incarnations of familiar characters to life, and there is even a brief, humourous uncredited cameo appearance by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. McAvoy brings an easygoing charm to his role as the earnest young Xavier, who sees a future where mutants and humans can live together. Fassbender brings his characteristic intensity to his role as Eric, who became Magneto, who has a healthy and well-deserved distrust of humans. He even captures much of Ian McKellan’s style with his dialogue. We see how this pair were good friends until their different attitudes towards humans drove then apart. McAvoy and Fassbender bring plenty of integrity to their performances, and the pair establish a wonderful rapport.
However there are far too many characters introduced here, and out of necessity many of the young cast – particularly Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi and Zoe Kravitz - are not given much screen time to establish their characters. However, Jennifer Lawrence (from Winter’s Bone) as Raven, aka Mystique, and Nicholas Hoult as brilliant scientist Hank McCoy, aka Beast, are given a fair amount of screen time to develop their characters. And Aussie actress Rose Byrne (from Insidious and the upcoming Bridesmaids) lends solid support as Moira McTaggart, the CIA scientist who enlists Xavier’s help in tracking down Shaw. Oliver Platt brings a welcome touch of humour to his role as an enigmatic CIA executive who sees the potential of Xavier’s mutants in maintaining world peace.
But it is Bacon who steals the film with his scenery chewing performance as the formidable archvillain of the piece, a larger than life villain straight out of the Bond canon. As his telepathic assistant Emma Frost, January Jones (from tv series Mad Men) is alluring even if given little of note to do.
As with Christopher Nolan’s superb retooling of the Batman legend with Batman Begins, and J J Abrams breathing fresh life into the Star Trek franchise, X-Men: First Class is the perfect way in which to reboot this Marvel franchise that had shown signs of becoming tired and stale.