Cast your mind back to those grossly-misjudged attempts to weave together a Darth Vader origin story, where events, history and character arcs fully ingrained into the previous mythology were awkwardly shoe-horned in to the latter installments, with scant regard for establishing any continuity and emotional connection between the eras. With that in mind, it comes with much relief to confirm that X-Men: First Class is everything those films wished they could be, and has far more in common with J. J. Abram’s rip-roaring Star Trek reboot then the shallow exploits of team Jedi.
We’re greeted with an opening which is pretty much a facsimile of the Nazi death camp environment of the first X-Men feature. This time however (and almost as a subconscious nod to the larger canvas being created here) we’re privy to what happens to the young man named Erik Lehnsherr after that initial burst of power is revealed. Placed into an inhuman and potential devastating situation by a wicked, Josef Mengele-type doctor (a deliciously evil and smooth Kevin Bacon), his latent powers are finally unleashed in a genuinely terrifying display of metal-crunching fury. We’re then brought 20-odd years into the future where the skills and expertise of a young Professor, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) are called on by a CIA operative (Rose Byrne) who has uncovered dastardly mutant activity within the walls of a seemingly innocuous swinging sixties, high-end men’s striptease and poker establishment called The Hellfire Club.
Its proprietor, Sebastian Shaw, (Bacon) has moved on from his past life and previous guise and, like the previous films, his feelings towards man and mutant very much echo’s Malcolm X’s rhetoric. Assisted by diamond-encrusted henchwoman Emma Frost (January Jones, helping to whip up a little Mad Men-vibe and the heart rate of the male audience) he is attempting to further exacerbate tensions between east and west in an already delicate and tumultuous period in world history. Following a botched assassination attempt on Shaw by the now grown-up Erik (Michael Fassbender), the man who would be Magneto is rescued by Xavier and welcomed into the new CIA-backed underground mutant taskforce. Initially reluctant to join, he’s persuaded by the telekinetic one to assist him in assembling a team of fellow X-Men to take down Shaw before he becomes the catalyst for starting World War Three.
The talented screenwriting duo of Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn have made a fantastic effort here to bring the 60’s age of civil unrest and cold world paranoia successfully into a comic book milieu, and weave what is essentially a period, character-based (a term which don’t normally spring to mind in such a genre) espionage thriller with big action spectacle thrills. While very much an ensemble piece, the two actors at the heart of it, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, are pivotal to the film’s success. McAvoy is much looser and playful here than Patrick Stewart’s measured turn, and if his character has a worryingly Austin Powers-esque side which bubbles up near the beginning (he uses “groovy” a little too many times for comfort), he soon settles into the part. His unwavering capacity for helping and encouraging his fellow mutants to see beyond the alienation they’re become accustomed to, makes for some especially stirring onscreen moments.
Fassbinder’s initial trajectory, which follows his globe-trotting escapades on a quest to find and kill the man who took his life away, has an almost a rogue James Bond-type quality (a lovely 60’s-flavoured guitar twang which can’t help but conjure up memories of 007 in that era). He certainly isn’t averse to eliminating any other war criminals that cross his path either, and although the film is blood and gore-free, his quest for vengeance is still pretty violent and unflinching.
The odd couple strike up a very believable and warm friendship (again, this is something Lucas couldn’t established between Anakin and Obi-Wan during the course of three whole films) and while Fassbender is all coiled-up rage and anger, McAvoy does his best to act as a calming influence. This never once feels contrived or rushed and that supportive (if, at times, strained) comradely atmosphere is even more painful for the audience to get behind, as you’re constantly aware of how it all ends. Another standout is Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique. Strong-willed and determined not to be a casualty of her ‘gift’, she acts as a nice counterbalance to Charles and Erik’s conflicting ideologies. Without giving anything away, the film also features one of the greatest cameos and rebuttals in all of cinema. The figure in question is completely unexpected and is an absolute delight.
There’s a lot to pack in here but Vaughn and his team do a heroic job themselves with the tight pacing and plotting. He even manages to prevent quite a lengthy training montage sequence a third of the way though from slowing down the narrative drive, and uses a neat split-screen device (another homage to that period) in helping to ensure this.
There are some casualties here however, which is perhaps inevitable when you’re trying to tell such a heady and epic tale. Both Oliver Platt (as a friendly CIA man in black) and Rose Byrne aren’t given much to do really. Vaughn regular Jason Flemyng isn’t particularly stretched either, although his bad guy mutant character Azazel (apparently daddy to Nightcrawler) is involved in one of the film’s most striking sequences, where he dispatches of multiple CIA members by literally dropping them from the sky! Some of the effects are a little underdone too, but this must surely be attributed to the herculean task the makers were faced with in trying to bring the film to cinemas screens in such a limited time window between production and release date.
Like The Dark Knight before it, the film has far-reaching ambitions outside of the normal comic book world, and by Vaughn insisting on making sure the very human and entirely relatable interplay between characters is allowed to breathe, and more importantly, develop in amongst some impressive action beats, the audience is fully engaged right through to the huge (yet somehow intimate) ending, which delivers a devastating and emotional punch seldom seen in films of this nature.
Easily up there with the second feature, X-Men: First Class should hopefully eliminate the nasty, lingering aftertaste of the thoroughly underwhelming third installment (incidentally, a film which Vaughn was mooted to direct at one point) and the anemic Wolverine spin-off. Fox are now in the enviable position (like the aforementioned Star Trek) to essentially start afresh and embark on another series. Let’s hope they stick to this template in the future, whether it’s for another X-Men film or any comic book adaptation for that matter.
If the rest of this season’s high-profile superhero features get anywhere close to matching what Vaughn has done here, we could be in for a thoroughly satisfying summer of escapism.