X-Men: First Class review

Matthew Vaughn recruits Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, and breathes fresh life into a franchise that had long since lost its way. Here’s our review of X-Men: First Class….

Let’s be clear about this from the start: at its best, X-Men: First Class is a Batman Begins-level putting back together of a cinematic franchise, one that many had fallen firmly out of love with after the double hit of Brett Ratner’s vacuous X-Men: The Last Stand and Gavin Hood’s relentlessly downbeat X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

By going right back to basics, First Class not only finds interesting things to say at the very beginnings of the X-Men story, but it might just make you believe in origin stories all over again. And while it doesn’t quite sustain itself across its entire running time in the manner that Nolan’s Batman reboot managed, director Matthew Vaughn come far closer than you might expect. Make no mistake, it’s a triumph.

The film gets off to a flying start in a pre-title sequence that introduces the terrific Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, and the young Erik Lehnsherr. It’s a dark start for a film that doesn’t spend much of its time in the doldrums (it learns the lessons of the Wolverine spin-off, certainly), but it convincingly sets up the drive that underpins the older version of Erik, played by Michael Fassbender, and the unflinching nastiness of Shaw. Furthermore, the film from the off has a strong, rounded antagonist, and it helps it enormously.

X-Men: First Class, in fact, makes the hopes and fears of all of its core characters entirely understandable, without bogging its narrative down. Thus, Charles Xavier is a genius, whose upbeat demeanour covers his understanding of mutations and his desire to help those who have to hide their differences. Raven is troubled by her appearance, and finds herself spending energy just to blend in. And then there’s Nicholas Hoult as Hank, fighting his mutation, and applying his intelligence to find any kind of cure for it.

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Inevitably, not every character gets the same level of attention, but X-Men: First Class does at least ensure they all have a reason for being there, and as such, everyone in the ensemble gets a welcome step into the spotlight. Heck, it even bothers to show the group of youngsters enjoying their unusual powers, rather than continually living in shame of them, which proves pivotal when the inevitable cracks start to appear. It all feels natural, too, even when this group of teens start dishing out the iconic names for their mutant selves.

But the beating heart of the film, and when it’s at its absolute best, is when Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are on screen. Because First Class is, ultimately, their story about how two friends drift to differing sides of the fence.

Both actors are terrific, too. Fassbender is intense, has hints of darkness, and a concentration about his character that few in blockbuster cinema could match. If you had any doubt that he was both a future Oscar winner and a James Bond in waiting, let First Class dispel it now.

Yet, it’s arguably McAvoy who has the tougher role here, with Charles Xavier, balancing intelligence, training his new charges and being the focal point for the mutant population. McAvoy nails it, and nails it brilliantly, convincingly shifting mood and tone, while never being anything less than compelling to watch. The moments where Erik and Charles do little other than talk to each other are absolutely magnetic, no pun intended, and Fassbender and McAvoy deserve a lot of credit for making them so.

The rest of the cast are no slouches, mind. I’ve already touched on how strong a villain Kevin Bacon is, with his character never overshadowing the movie, but always being a sinister threat. I warmed, too, to the performances of Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence, in particular, as Hank and Raven, and theirs is the relationship, outside of Charles and Erik’s, that’s given the most screen time.

On the downside, female characters as a whole don’t come out too well. January Jones, terrific in Mad Men, struggles to hold her own here as Emma Frost. And while Rose Byrne has more luck as Dr Moira MacTaggart, she’s down to her underwear within minutes of meeting her, and most of the women in the film follow suit at some point. The film has a lingerie budget far in excess of any blockbuster in recent memory.

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But then the filmmakers would, no doubt, argue that they’re capturing the spirit and essence of the 1960s setting, and there is at least an argument there. Because, to their credit, the decision to underpin the film with the nuclear threat of the Cuban missile crisis is a brilliant one. The period detail of the era is superb, for starters, but it’s the political backdrop that proves to be an inspired foundation for the film’s driving plot.

The hero of the piece, though, has to be director Matthew Vaughn. His directorial career is now four out of four from where I’m sitting (following Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass), and X-Men: First Class can’t help but leave you wondering just what he’d have done with X-Men: The Last Stand, had he not walked away from that particular project.

The Last Stand’s loss, though, is ultimately First Class‘ gain. Vaughn juggles ensemble character development, a dose of comedy (the film’s one F-bomb will bring the geeky house down) and some generally terrific actions sequences, rarely letting the momentum of the film drop.

X-Men: First Class is, at it turns out, only five minutes shorter than Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, yet it feels half the length, so energetically does it move along.

There are mild grumbles. Just before the film closes in on its third act, you could argue that the tempo just starts to ease off a little too much, and one or two of the effects sequences don’t entirely convince. But they’re only noticeable because everything else here is really so good.

Ultimately, part of the reason that X-Men: First Class feels so fresh and enjoyable is perhaps because this is a franchise that’s long since appeared to run out of steam. Part of it, also, is that it remembers to inject a sense of fun alongside the underpinning messages that it so skilfully gets across.

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But all considered, the main reason is that, at the sheer heart of it, X-Men: First Class is a compelling, interesting, entertaining and very, very good piece of big screen entertainment.

Following hot on the heels of Thor, and against initial expectations, 2011 may just go down as a very strong year for the comic book movie. Whether that happens or not (and the gauntlet has been firmly thrown down for Green Lantern and Captain America), Matthew Vaughn has just managed to make X-Men, once more, one of the most compelling movie franchises on the planet.

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4 out of 5