We conclude our look at the X-Men film series with Matthew Vaughn’s reinvigorating prequel.
Who made it?: Matthew Vaughn (Director/Co-Writer), Jane Goldman, Zack Stentz, Ashley Miller (Co-Writers), Bryan Singer, Lauren Shuler Donner, Simon Kinberg, Gregory Goodman (Producers), 20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment/Dune Entertainment.
Who’s in it?: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult.
Tagline: “Witness the origin.”
IMDb rating: 7.8/10.
20th Century Fox had a lot riding on X-Men: First Class. It was ostensibly a prologue to the long-running series but it also aimed to resuscitate the franchise after the insufferable one-two punch of The Last Stand and X-Men Orgins: Wolverine. It arrived without much fanfare and the distinct lack of anticipation was understandable. In a decade that has seen Marvel form their own studio to produce faithful adaptations of their work, Fox’s X-Men needed a shot in the arm. Which is what happens when you go from Bryan Singer to Brett Ratner.
Enter Matthew Vaughn. At one point he was set to direct Last Stand, but he would eventually get his comic book fix with the wonderfully juvenile Kick-Ass. For whatever reason, Vaughn couldn’t get away from those mutants. With Singer on board as an executive producer and a talented cast, First Class surprised many by being fine summer entertainment and, after three years of revisits, it emerges as (arguably) the most satisfying and well-read of the flicks to date and a fine period comic book romp. One of my favourite aspects of the X-Men mythology is its willingness to tie its chronology to real-world history, and Vaughn absolutely jumps at this opportunity.
Events opens in Poland, 1944. A young Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) is being led into a Nazi concentration camp when a fit of rage unleashes his latent powers. It’s a loving recreation of the scene from Singer’s fourteen-year-old original, and I had to go back and watch the first film to see where Singer’s footage ends and Vaughn’s begins. It is here that Erik crosses paths with the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a powerful mutant who can absorb energy and use it to his advantage. He witnesses Erik’s abilities and spares him from the gas chamber. Across the globe, a young Charles Xavier encounters another mutant – the shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Mystique), changing the course of his life forever. It is the first of many parallels that First Class makes between Lehnsherr and Xavier. Their friendship and eventual rivalry is the main crux of the picture.
We then shift to 1962. An adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) is tracking down former Nazi officers in hope of finding Shaw, and Charles (James McAvoy) is publishing his thesis on mutation. In Nevada, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is on a stake-out at the mutant-friendly Hellfire Club, where she sees Shaw and cohorts Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) using their powers. MacTaggert turns to Xavier for help, eventually convincing him to reveal mutant kind to the CIA. Together, they go after Shaw who plans to use the Cuban Missile Crisis as a catalyst for World War III. The mission brings Xavier and Lehnsherr together and informs the next thirty years of their lives…
It is safe to assume that X-Men comics struck a nerve due to smartly-integrated social commentary, and Marvel’s allegorical view of racism hasn’t been forgotten by Vaughn. The comics shrewdly incorporated contemporary politics and the 60s setting proves to be First Class’ most impressive element. There’s a playful tone to the picture that echoes the free-spirited feel of the decade whilst still playing up the tension and paranoia the times also inspired. This is a full blockbuster, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a longer cut in existence. Vaughn tackles the myriad plot developments with care and patience like his predecessor, and it’s a credit to him that the film remains focused. There are a few action highlights, including Shaw’s explosive assault on a CIA facility, but First Class is primarily an adult-oriented character study. There are long stretches of subtitled dialogue and discussions on the nature of humanity that may bore children. Vaughn’s mature approach should be commended, however – this is certainly the most textural entry in the series.
He’s aided by a cast that appears to be having a blast. Bacon chews the scenery as Shaw, a performance that teeters on a knife-edge between hammy and sinister. His theatrics give him a Bond villain vibe, and while he isn’t introduced in a revolving chair with a cat on his lap, the comparison stands. Less able is Jones as Frost who looks phenomenal in a series of tight-fitting outfits that disguise her crippling lack of range. The other newbies, which include Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) inject special effects and humour when they’re required, but never develop beyond their core personality traits. This is always going to be a pet-peeve with X-Men movies, but then there’s just so much to cram in!
Thankfully, we have the previously-mistreated Dr. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) who is given his own story arc in this over-stuffed narrative. His journey from prehensile-footed scientist to furry Beast is a good one. Hoult is also acceptable as a young Kelsey Grammer if never bringing the same gravitas to the part.
McAvoy and Fassbender give the film its resonance, however. They are so good in their respective roles that you quickly forget about Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. It is Xavier and Lehnsherr’s friendship that defines First Class and, to a larger extent, the entire X-Men world. The film soars whenever Vaughn focuses on their meeting of minds. While McAvoy is brilliant as posh toff Charles, putting his own spin on the role, it is Fassbender who walks away with the film. His Erik is everything you want Magneto to be: intelligent, resourceful, cunning and devious. A scene where he finds a trio of Nazis in a tavern (shades of Inglorious Basterds) is possibly more intimidating than anything McKellen was given the chance to do. This is one mutant you don’t want to fuck with.
The plot-threads intertwine brilliantly for the customary showdown, as the missile brigade is unleashed on our “heroes.” Vaughn finally lets-loose with the mutant carnage and each character gets their moment to shine. The climax is tight and exciting, but curiously lacking in suspense. It is, after all, a prequel. We know the fate of these characters, so the final twenty-minutes is merely a case of joining the dots. Xavier’s horror over his sudden paralysis would have been more powerful if we weren’t waiting for it to happen.
Despite some minor issues – the effects aren’t always convincing, hello missiles – X-Men: First Class ends up being the best of the lot in my humble opinion. There’s no Wolverine to get in the way of a proper team dynamic, there’s real darkness and consequence to every action, and Vaughn’s peerless command of pacing keeps the events exciting. It isn’t as well-executed as X2 perhaps, but it pips Singer’s movie to the post in terms of sheer heart. I get the impression Vaughn is a long-time reader of the books, and would you know it, that makes all the difference…
Us humans just can’t be trusted…
- Matthew Vaughn cited the first two X-films, Batman Begins (2005), Star Trek (1966) and the 1960s Bond films as major influences on this film.
- To prepare for his role as Charles Xavier, James McAvoy shaved his head… and learned that the filmmakers wanted Xavier to have a full head of hair in the prequel. Throughout the first month of filming McAvoy had to wear hair extensions.
- During the Cerebro sequence, one of the mutants to be seen is Cyclops as a young boy playing with a glove and baseball, noticeable by his sunglasses, and the other being Storm, most noticeable by her haircut.
- The uniforms the X-Men wear are colored blue and yellow in homage to the original suits the X-Men wore in the comics from their debut in 1963 until original artist and co-creator Jack Kirby’s departure from the book.