X-Men: First Class (2011)
Matthew Vaughn directed this prequel/reboot of the X-Men franchise and it would appear that he’s managed to please everybody except me. Hell, I’ll be honest, I even enjoyed the Wolverine movie more than this – at least that had enough decent action beats throughout and tried to make up with spectacle what it lacked in all other areas.
Remember Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, the bald and wheelchair-bound Professor X who unified and led the X-Men? Well, this time around he’s played in his prime by James McAvoy. And Magneto? He is still going by his given name of Erik Lehnsherr and is played by Michael Fassbender.
The main baddie this time around is Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, and his band of scheming mutants he likes to call The Hellfire Club. Shaw has a plan to cause a global disaster/war that would see humans weakened and eradiacted by the mutants who could rise to superiority. Or, as you and I may better recall it, the Cuban missile crisis. Rose Byrne plays Moira MacTaggert (without a Scottish accent), an agent trying to find out about mutations and what they may be capable of. She soon finds out that the impossible is possible thanks to Charles and his friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence playing the character yet to pick the “Mystique” name) and the next stage is finding more mutants to side with them and create a law-abiding force to be reckoned with. A force that can help to overcome Shaw and his Hellfire Club.
Many people have praised this film for the focus on characterisation and dramatic tension above simplistic superhero action sequences. That’s all well and good in one respect – Erik (Magneto) and Charles (Professor X) have decent character arcs – but there’s the other side of the coin to consider here and that’s the fact that those character arcs were already well represented in the original X-Men trilogy. It showed the two men representing opposing ideals and pitting themselves against each other, despite their past friendship. The same thing is shown here. Again. And again. And again.
The film isn’t helped by the other young mutants it chooses to include. Havoc, Darwin, Angel and Banshee are all pretty dull. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) AKA Beast is a little more interesting but only due to what audiences already know about his character. At least Sebastian Shaw gets to keep company with Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (a pretty unrecognisable Jason Flemying). Small roles for the likes of Glenn Morshower, Michael Ironside, James Remar and Oliver Platt help flesh out the light cast of non-mutants.
It took four people to create the screenplay, based on a story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, and we can only be thankful that at least one of these people remembered to throw in the occasional moment of genuine entertainment amongst the 60s-cool and attempts at meaningful moments of drama. The first encounter between Sebastian Shaw and a young Erik is powerful stuff, immediately turning Kevin Bacon into an impressive baddie for the movie. There’s also a great scene in which Erik tries to keep mental hold of a submersible vehicle and a fight sequence involving the teleporting Azazel that’s almost as impressive as the start of X – Men 2.
Even if the material is a tired retread of stuff we already know, the actors delivering it all do a great job. McAvoy may be a bit too naïve and earnest but that’s his character. Michael Fassbender steals the show with a fantastic performance full of barely-controlled anger. Jennifer Lawrence is the mutant in between both men, torn between a long friendship and a constant need to hide her appearance best summed up in the following lines: “You know Charles, I use to think it was gonna be you and me against the world. But no matter how BAD the world gets, you don’t wanna be against it do you? You want to be part of it.” And Kevin Bacon is fantastic, he should definitely keep getting more villainous roles.
It’s funky and amusing in many places (a montage with Charles and Erik recruiting mutants is great fun, and features a fantastic cameo) but also weighed down by the need to cover too many bases – pleasing the fans, foreshadowing events to come, maintaining the cool retro vibe, etc. Vaughn has provided many fans with something that they see as a fantastic instalment on the franchise but it didn’t do anything for me except leave me cold. Which is not what I expect from blockbuster superhero movies, no matter how unique a direction the director wants to take with it.
DIRECTOR: MATTHEW VAUGHN
STARS: JAMES MCAVOY, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, JENNIFER LAWRENCE, KEVIN BACON, ROSE BYRNE, JANUARY JONES
RUNTIME: 132 MINS APPROX