Review: X-Men: First Class

Film review
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Jason Flemyng
Release date June 1 2011

1963. When the power-crazed Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) attempts to bring on a nuclear war between the US and Russia, Charles Xavier (McAvoy), Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) and Raven (Lawrence) set up a mutant super-team to stop him…

X-Men was a franchise in trouble. After the widely derided X-Men: The Last Stand and the lumbering origin antics of Wolverine, it was obvious someone needed to inject a new energy into this once-ace series.

That Avengers-worthy task has been handed to Matthew Vaughn – and he’s an inspired choice. After all, his last film was the insanely entertaining Kick-Ass: a movie with a whipcrack pace, crunching action sequences and an ability to simultaneously celebrate and subvert superhero conventions. X-Men: First Class may be a much more traditional superhero movie, but Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman carry over the verve and, on occasion, the irreverence (check out that cameo!) of their previous film; it just isn’t quite focused enough to compete with the lean first two X-Men entries.

This is a very different origins tale from Wolverine. Events move at a much faster pace, with less of the self-conscious brooding of Gavin Hood’s film, and the movie deals with the origin story of numerous characters rather than just one. That doesn’t always work in the film’s favour. Vaughn and Goldman cram in so many events, sub-plots and characters during the slightly numbing 132-minute running time that it becomes difficult to keep up or care about what’s going on all of the time. Inevitably several characters end up getting sidelined: January Jones’s mind-reading diamond shapeshifter Emma Frost is sadly absent for much of the final act, while the likes of Banshee and Havok don’t get nearly enough of a look in.

At the same time, the narrative’s central drama – which centres on Shaw’s attempt to bring about a nuclear holocaust by engineering the Cuban Missile Crisis – never feels especially involving. This is partly, perhaps, because we know that both humans and mutants will live to fight another day, but partly because the drama becomes lost in the sheer amount of other things going on the movie. And neither the Cuban Missile Crisis nor the 60s setting are used to particularly clever effect: aside from the occasional pop hit and copious use of Kennedy TV footage, this could have been set at any time.

But really the beating heart of First Class was always going to be the uneasy friendship between Professor Xavier and Magneto (or Erik Lehnsherr, as he is here), and in terms of their evolving relationship – and personal battles – this is often gripping stuff. James McAvoy makes for a charming unlikely hero; somebody who, when he’s not leading mutants into battle, enjoys using facts about genetics to pick up women – though you’re never entirely convinced he’ll morph into Patrick Stewart one day. Michael Fassbender is the real star of First Class though (admittedly, he bags the story’s most interesting role). He brings believable layers of pain, rage and conflicted loyalties to Magneto, someone who faces a constant inner battle between using his powers for the forces of good and using them purely for vengeance (firstly on Shaw; ultimately on the world). The scenes of the two men together, especially one sequence in which Xavier teaches Erik to focus on a comforting memory to help him to blow up a satellite dish (it plays better than it sounds, trust us!) are by turns funny, gripping and tragic.

There are many other pleasures here: the evolution of Beast is amusing (if unlikely); the action sequences, including an exciting, unusual-looking beach-set showdown and a tense assault on a mutant hideaway, look great (the occasional dodgy FX shot aside); and there’s a fun mutants-in-training montage that makes nice use of split screen. Sure, the dialogue is often silly and exposition-filled, but this is a comic book movie after all.

Vaughn’s film is, then, an almost first class superhero adventure that’s hampered by excessive clutter and, eventually, a refusal to credit audiences with much intelligence. After seemingly culminating in the inevitable final battle, the film winds up hammering home who Xavier and Magneto will eventually become – as if it wasn’t obvious enough already! It then closes on a Take That song, which, aside from being a deeply uncool superhero soundtrack choice, is totally at odds with the 60s setting. Matt McAllister

VERDICT: 7/10
A colourful and often gripping prequel: with more focus, less characters and some judicious editing it just might have equalled Bryan Singer’s first two instalments.

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