This year we’re in danger of being swamped by comic-book adaptations, and if you’re not a dedicated Marvel fanboy/girl, they all seem to offer much the same thing. In fact, for the latter group, X-Men is defined by Wolverine and Storm, of which only one makes a fleeting appearance in this, X-Men: First Class. So what can a prequel directed by Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn bring to the table?
Apparently, a lot more than first thought… Set predominantly in the early 1960s around the height of the Cold War, the film first looks at the origins of Magneto, born Erik Lehnsherr, a Holocaust survivor metal-bent on getting revenge on those responsible for his parents’ death in the concentration camp; Head henchman is Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who Lehnsherr vows to hunt down and kill after the war. Meanwhile, growing up in affluence in the United States is Charles Xavier who knows he has a special telepathic gift, and who meets another ‘mutant’, Raven, in his kitchen one night, masquerading as his mother after morphing into her figure. This is the start of a strong sibling-style bond. As the mutants from different walks of life develop, meet and bring others on board under the leadership of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), while Schmidt – now calling himself Sebastian Shaw, a wealthy US entrepreneur – is set on starting World War III and instilling mutant rule, another more personal battle of wills is at play between Charles and Erik (Michael Fassbender). Once friends, they find themselves drifting apart.
Even though the first X-Men film touched on Magneto’s background, the writers now grab the chance to not only flesh out the origins of the mutants, but also re-hook flagging interest in the franchise after the lukewarm reception of Wolverine in 2009. And there’s NO half-hearted attempt at 3D either, unlike recent comic-book offerings. The writers have also re-injected a youthful energy and strong feelings of hope into the story by gathering a collection of mutants from the X-Men comic series as backing for the main story: the rise and fall of Charles and Erik’s friendship, and the seeds of a long-seated vendetta.
This film is solely memorable for Vaughn’s skillful casting of McAvoy as enigmatic leader Professor Charles X and Fassbender as bitter and desperate Erik – aka Magneto, characters previously made famous by Patrick Stewart (Charles) and Ian McKellen (Erik). McAvoy is delightfully entertaining as ladies’ man Charles, oozing charm, wit and intelligence that make the forming of his mutant training school and crack team all the more credible. His mind games act as a sedative to anger-riddled, metal-bending Erik’s antics, that their chalk-and-cheese relationship is the momentum that drives this film forward, then leaves you longing for a sequel – which is bound to happen.
Fassbender brings a dangerous, ticking-time-bomb energy to Erik/Magento, the reasons for which we fully comprehend as we get to see the start of his pain. His mission brings instant empathy, up until his change of heart. At one point, his unpredictability seems to find a channel, which allows for a brilliant little sequence where both friends go on the hunt for others like them, creating a hilarious comedy duo in Fassbender and McAvoy.
In fact, rather than all the mutants merely being angry with the non-gifted human world, we get to fully understand how they feel ‘different’, especially highlighted by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy/Beast’s (Skins star Nicholas Hoult) teen-like anxieties of wanting to fit in that add another genuinely heartfelt and interesting sub-plot to the mix. Both Lawrence and Hoult make an excellent addition to the new X-Men prequel line-up.
Nevertheless – good direction and casting aside, First Class has some niggles to it. Its moments of 1960s Bond-style backdrop, inter-cut with real newsreel reports of the time, feel slightly at odds with the more contemporary attitudes and styles of some of the younger mutants the film-makers have chosen to concentrate on, such as Angel (Zoë Kravitz) who as a firefly-like mutant brings very little to the battle table and is easily forgetful. However, two mutants will appease the fanboys; Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) who get a lot of action sequences, as though being blatantly set up for the obvious sequel.
Some of the action set pieces are tamer than in previous films. Admittedly, this film is about telling the story of how it all begin, so it’s very much character-driven, and Bacon’s Shaw is a villainous caricature nicely in-keeping with a 60s’ Bond film, hence his antics are not too far-fetched – but how he becomes mutant-like is left unexplained and is open to suggestion. However, even the end missile standoff seems rather limp, and Magneto’s confrontation with Shaw is only memorable for the Watchmen-like coin finale. It’s as if Vaughn was told to hold back for the next film to really go to town.
Indeed, like 60s Bond’s beauties, the females in this film, namely Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert and January Jones as diamond-crusted Emma Frost have whatever fight knocked out of them in favour of emphasising their feminine qualities, with both in their undies within a matter of minutes of their first screen time. It’s as though Vaughn is a wannabe Bond director. But it also doesn’t help that Jones gets very little to do in this film but look ‘shiny hot’, unfairly refuelling the debate about her acting abilities – or lack of. Even Agent MacTaggert is forgotten towards the end of the film, only to resurface as the catalyst for Prof X’s sudden disability and as his love interest, when she was going undercover at the very start in an exciting espionage scenario.
That said the nuclear threat of the 60s Cuban missile crisis brings a very real historical grounding to the whole story, and with the more in-depth character revelations than your average comic-book action flick, Vaughn has managed to add some substance. It would be great to see him on board for when things really heat up in the next saga, too. Just keep things 2D, unless the technology is really used to its full cinematographic effect.
First Class is a truly exciting and apt prequel to explain the X-Men phenomenon with some outstanding performances from McAvoy and Fassbender that go to fuel an even greater buzz for a post-prequel meeting of gifted minds.