X-Men: First Class film review

Slick, smart and mostly satisfying, X-Men: First Class is a strong return to form for the superhero franchise that kicked off the comic adaptation boom of the last decade… and then slipped into disappointment territory with the release of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Well, X-Men 1 and 2 helmer Bryan Singer is back as producer for First Class, and Kick-Ass’s Matthew Vaughn is in the director’s chair, and together these 2 men have crafted an engaging prequel that manages to feels natural and comfortable despite cramming in multiple characters, events and explanations.

Set in 1962, First Class examines the emergence of the first generation of superpowered mutants, who have found their evolution accelerated by the emergence of nuclear power. While some, like telepathic professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy providing a decidedly "groovier," more relatable version of the character) are happy to work with the US government, and optimistic that cooperation will ease mutant acceptance in society, others are more sceptical. Having survived the Holocaust, Charles’s friend Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has experienced genocidal discrimination first hand, and has seen the dark heart of humanity. Still, there is a third group of mutants, calling themselves the Hellfire Club, who are not merely distrustful. They’re intent on manipulating the US and USSR into starting World War III to exterminate the human race once and for all.

Let me say upfront that Daniel Craig is an excellent James Bond, but should he ever step down, First Class makes a massive case for Fassbender. He’s old school 007 here – tall, sleek, dashing and deadly; capable of switching from charismatic to ice cold with the blink of an eye, and a flash of his teeth. It’s a standout performance in a film where all the actors are actually very convincing in their respective parts.

You can think of Magneto as the Wolverine of First Class. He’s the movie’s badass, hands down, and nowhere is this more evident than during his tense bar confrontation in Argentina. Much like Hugh Jackman’s Logan in X-Men 1 and 2, Erik has suffered a torturous past, has been used by authorities, is enraged, and kills with ease. It’s only when he is befriended by cheerful Charles that he begins to find some kind of inner peace, and learns to explore the full scope of his abilities. For the record, for several years there were plans to make a Magneto Origins film, and that concept seems to have been heavily utilised here in First Class.

There is a lot that is impressive about X-Men: First Class. The film’s 60s setting is a masterstroke. While admittedly some of the characters feel more contemporary than others, by placing events against the backdrop of the highly turbulent Swinging Sixties – or rather, on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties – the film is able to strike that difficult balance between being simultaneously believable and comic book-like. Characters are allowed to dress more flamboyantly, and it’s credible. Not silly. Gone are the generic black leather body suits of 21st Century-set X-Men 1 – 3. Instead we’re treated to costuming and a world with much more distinct, colourful comic flavour.

Speaking of credibility, it’s a pleasant surprise how well the “first class” of young mutant recruits interact in the film. Although they aren’t especially well developed for the most part (Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy/Beast are exceptions) the young adults have a very convincing camaraderie, and quickly endear themselves to the audience. I put this down to Vaughn’s involvement, as he has already proved with Kick-Ass he knows how to extract and highlight the warm and believability of such simple interactions.

There’s also a pleasing logic to X-Men: First Class. The film provides answers to several questions that have been ignored until now in the X-Men films. The movie could have felt convoluted trying to accommodate them all, but the explanations are expressed in a satisfyingly natural way. The same goes for the happy surprises that are the film’s 2 major cameo appearances from the other X-Men movies.

It must be said at this point that First Class isn’t especially deep or complex. The film doesn’t raise thought-provoking questions or have the edginess of The Dark Knight for example. Instead it prefers to trot out the same message the series has always conveyed – even if you don't fit the social norm, you should be “out” and proud of who you are – without building on it or adding ambiguity to the issue.

In terms of complaints, I was a bit disappointed in Emma Frost AKA White Queen. This isn’t the fault of January Jones, who completely looks the part, and radiates bored disdain for everyone and everything around her. Rather, it’s the way the character is treated onscreen. In the comics, Frost is arrogant and powerful enough to lead alongside, not under, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon in this film). She’s a headline villain in her own right. In First Class her character seems more like an attempt to foreshadow Mystique’s “right hand woman” relationship with Magneto, and it doesn’t do the character justice. Emma here is a head-cocking fembot who disappointingly disappears in the second half of the film with her potential untapped. This said, the character’s diamond transformation is stunning, and I think First Class has a very good chance of landing an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects early next year.

Other quibbles about the film include the fact that Banshee should really have been Irish, even if I was otherwise very impressed with Rupert Grint-lookalike Caleb Landry Jones in the role. The same can be said for Holt’s portrayal of McCoy/Beast, although I’ve never been a fan of the feline character design lifted from more recent comics. I much prefer the make-up applied to Kelsey Grammer in X-Men 3.

In all honesty, I can’t say I’m dying to see an X-Men: First Class sequel. I’m worried that the filmmakers will screw it up, and sour the experience of this movie, which already so perfectly explains so much. If, or more likely, when, they go ahead, I hope they treat Singer’s X-Men films (1 and 2) as canon and completely ignore The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, just as Superman Returns blacked out Superman III and IV.

Right now X-Men: First Class is not only this year’s big superhero adaptation to beat, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable fantasy blockbusters of 2011. Definitely one to watch for lovers of intelligent escapist fare.


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