Fox’s X-Men franchise has become a little tarnished of late. After two very good movies, that used superpowers as a background to themes of isolation, discrimination and acceptance, we had two less good films, let down by poor storytelling, and bad CGI. It’s rather pleasing then, that X-Men: First Class takes the series back to its roots, both figuratively, in terms of the character-focused drama, and literally, as we open with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the beginning of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film. In doing so, the film makes itself instantly familiar, and also, instantly engaging.
That sense of engagement carries throughout, as the story covers much less familiar territory. After an expansion on young Erik’s experience in the death camp, and a brief introduction to a young Charles Xavier, we move forward to the 1960s, and the film enters the world of Connery-era bond. With a mix of scantily-clad girls, nuclear threat, and a submarine-bound evil villain, the movie could well have veered into Austin Powers-style parody, but Vaughn manages to stay on just the right side of camp, keeping his tongue firmly out of his cheek, but also reserving the real sincerity for the relationships between the characters.
Indeed, it is in the treatment of the characters, and their relationships that the film really triumphs. Wisely Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence don’t even attempt to mimic the performances given by Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Romijn in the earlier films in the franchise. Instead, Fassbender’s Erik feels almost Bond-like, both in his intelligence, and in his drive to get the job done, while McAvoy plays Xavier as a charming but conceited version of TV illusionist, Derren Brown. This creates a beautiful interplay between them, and their relationship, both the close friendship, and the underlying tension, is believable and immensely enjoyable to watch.
Alongside this pair, Lawrence holds her own as Raven. The close, fraternal relationship she shares with McAvoy’s Xavier in the film may well upset the dribbling fanboys, angry at any change to canon, but also serves as a strong counterpoint to the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender, and she is very much the emotional heart of the film. Around this core trio, the rest of the ensemble cast work perfectly, and the decision to keep the number of characters down means that each of the supporting cast feel fully rounded, and not simply there as fodder.
The other key relationship for the film is that between Singer and Vaughn, and frankly it’s seamless. Vaughn’s ability to direct action, and sense of humour run through the film, while the film still feels very much like a part of the world Singer created in his movies.
There’s a lot more to say about X-Men First Class, but we’ve promised not to give a proper review of the film until the 25th May. Check back then for our full thoughts on the movie.