X-Men: First Class spoiler-free verdict
We're not allowed to bring you our full X-Men: First Class review yet. But we have got the green light to tell you what it's like...
Please note: this is not our full review (which we're not allowed to run yet). In terms of story, we only talk about what's already in the public domain, and up to the starting credits.
X-Men: First Class has a tough job on its hands. After the surprisingly-positive critical and box office reception that greeted Thor, and its own confused, occasionally terrible marketing campaign, anticipation for the superhero prequel is understandably mixed. Its hopes lie with writer-director Matthew Vaughn, whose Kick-Ass was not only last year’s surprise cult smash, but also 2010’s best costumed-hero flick.
Kick-Ass showed that Vaughn (and co-writer Jane Goldman) knows how to deliver superhero thrills while still maintaining style, wit and a strong emotional core. And it is this mixture of strengths that he brings to X-Men: First Class, which consistently works on a number of narrative levels - be they origin story, period epic, super-powered action, thematic subtext or character drama.
After the awkward dead-end of the last two X-films, we flash back to earlier in the lives of Professor X and Magneto, when they were known as Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). An expertly-executed pre-titles sequence deftly defines these two characters, their powers, and their differing perspectives on mutant life.
Calling back to Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, we see Erik, a child in the Warsaw Ghetto. However, in parallel, we are introduced to Charles, living in leafy upstate New York, waking in the early hours to find a mysterious, shape-shifting girl rooting around in his kitchen. As Erik twists the metal gate that separates him from his parents, and Charles holds out a hand to his fellow mutant, their opposing worldviews are cemented, two character traits that anchor the film: the conflict between compassion and trauma-induced paranoia.
Jump forward to the 1960s, and First Class is underway. At the height of the Cold War, the CIA are on the track of the Hellfire Club, an organisation, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), which is exerting influence on both of the world’s superpowers. The Club, it seems, has super-powers of their own, which leads agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to Xavier, now a young professor - and world expert in mutants - at Oxford University.
The film takes great enjoyment in its period dressing, revelling in the fashion, music and little details of the 1960s, from catsuits to colourful War Room maps. Throughout, Vaughn balances style and story, indulging in crucial moments of undercutting humour, fan service Easter Eggs, and splash-page spectacle, yet always reining in the action to the film’s core duo, and the discussion they act out across the narrative’s two hours.
For Charles and Erik started as friends, and not simply of convenience, or due to common enemies. McAvoy and Fassbender sell this tentative, yet tender relationship completely. They do not channel their older English counterparts, but they succeed in making the characters their own. This is especially true of Fassbender, whose lithe, turtle-necked Erik resembles James Bond, as played by Blade Runner-era Rutger Hauer.
It is just a shame that the supporting characters rarely receive such attention. While it is a joy to see the X-Men in nascent form, not all are fleshed out. Worryingly, the film’s female characters are immaterial, defined by either their vanity, or by showing up in lingerie at some point.
However, if the supporting cast seem at all weak, thinly-drawn or unfamiliar, then that merely primes the stage for the chess-game between Charles and Erik. This conflict, the result of which is certain from the start, is developed and executed without a hitch, evoking the Star Wars prequels not only in its narrative inevitability, but in how it triumphs where Lucas failed.
So despite all the ropey posters and off-putting promo material, X-Men: First Class manages to be a summer movie with something to say. Let’s just hope they don’t run this one into the ground, too, because I dread seeing an X-Men: Economy Class down the line.
Our full review will follow later in the week. X-Men: First Class will be released in the UK on 1st June.