X-Men: First Class *****
While continuing to be popular performers at the box office, the X-Men films have been in a state of disarray in terms of how well received they have been ever since X-Men and X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer bailed on the franchise to direct Superman Returns, leaving the reins in the hands of Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, whose third and final instalment of the original trilogy was much maligned by many a critic and many a fan upon its release back in 2006. And the woes of the franchise only increased with the first prequel movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine which, despite being directed by a filmmaker who showed considerable promise, was even worse received than The Last Stand, with the film that was released in cinemas not really being director Gavin Hood’s film at all but rather a bastardisation resulting from 20th Century Fox studio head Tom Rothman’s effective hijacking of the film and the bringing on board of Superman director Richard Donner to shadow direct.
Following two poorly received instalments, it seems that the X-Men franchise truly is in need of major salvation, although I doubt anyone ever truly thought that X-Men: First Class might be it. Ever since it was announced that the film was definitely moving forward after Fox approached Bryan Singer to direct in October 2009, there has been a lot of concern over this latest prequel, with everything from the casting decisions as actors were been announced for the roles to the look of the film as production stills began to be released being heavily scrutinised by X-Men fans tired of the poor handling of the franchise by the studio. Word of mouth during the film’s development certainly hasn’t been helped either by the announcement, in March 2010, that Bryan Singer – who was not the first director to be associated with the project, X-Men: The Last Stand and The Incredible Hulk screenwriter Zak Penn previously having been hired to write and direct the now cancelled project X-Men Origins: Magneto, the story of which has since come to be incorporated into this film – would be leaving the project to direct Jack the Giant Killer (although he has stayed on as a producer), although the announcement of Stardust and Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn as his replacement certainly proved promising. Vaughn, who had previously been attached to direct both X-Men: The Last Stand and Thor but in both cases left the projects for other endeavours, has certainly demonstrated that he has what it takes to really do justice to a film such as this, last year’s Kick-Ass receiving an incredible reception from both critics and moviegoers upon its release in cinemas and the announcement that he and Stardust and Kick-Ass co-writer Jane Goldman would be doing rewrites on the script – of which an early version was written by Chuck creator Josh Schwartz, based upon ideas originally put in place by Zak Penn, only to be ditched by Bryan Singer when he came on board with Street Kings writer Jamie Moss subsequently being brought on to write a new draft before Thor writers Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz did rewrites of his draft – only made the film seem all the more promising.
And such promise was heightened by his citing of the first two X-Men films, 2009’s Star Trek and the 1960s (the period this prequel takes place in) Bond films as inspirations as well as the announcement that the uniforms the characters would wear this time would be blue and yellow, in homage to the original blue and yellow suits that were worn in the original X-Men comics from their debut in 1963 through to the 2001 when the first X-Men film inspired a change to black leather, something which really seems to be targeted right at the fans who have been wronged somewhat by two subsequent films in the series. Even with Vaughn’s involvement, though, many fans (I among them) were very hesitant to get their hopes up about the quality of the film. The reputation of 20th Century Fox has been soured quite a bit in recent years as a result of studio head Tom Rothman’s repeated meddling in the creative process and there has certainly been concern that what happened with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with Rothman essentially taking the film away from the director, could well happen again here and concerns have continued to be raised right up to the release of the first trailer for the film this year, a trailer that changed everything.
With no reports of “creative differences” between 20th Century Fox and Matthew Vaughn, as had been the case between Fox and Hood on Wolverine, and a first trailer that seems to have left many fans rather speechless, X-Men: First Class has been transformed from a project no one really expected to make any major impression into one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the summer (and in a summer that also sees the release of Marvel Studios’ own Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger that really is saying something) and most of the concerns expressed early on have since been replaced by incredibly positive word of mouth, pre-release word of mouth suggesting that Vaughn has struck comic book gold once again and the previously scrutinised casting decisions being universally accepted and warmed up to, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender – appearing together for the first time since 2001’s TV series Band of Brothers – taking on the key roles originally played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen – who were considered to appear as the elder Professor X and Magneto before the idea was rejected by the filmmakers who wanted to craft a new X-Men trilogy without any direct connection the previous films – while other cast members include very respected actor Kevin Bacon, recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Mad Men actress January Jones, the currently in vogue Rose Byrne, About a Boy actor Nicholas Hoult and Stardust and Kick-Ass actor Jason Flemyng as well as Oliver Platt, Ray Wise and Michael Ironside.
With a very impressive cast line up and a director who has shown that he really knows how to make a great superhero movie (not to mention the fact that this is the one superhero movie of the summer not to be receiving a 3D conversion), X-Men: First Class has clear potential for greatness. Does it truly redeem the X-Men franchise in the eyes of both fans and moviegoers, though, and does it deliver the first class moviegoing experience that seems to be promised by the film’s marketing?
Ever since, as a young boy, he encountered Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl who, in her natural form, is blue from top to bottom and who has the ability to shapeshift into any form she wishes, and welcomed her as a sister, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who has the ability to read people’s minds and projects his thoughts into them, has known that he is not the only special person in the world. He has devoted his entire life to date to locating mutants and encouraging them to embrace the very things that make them unique, “mutant and proud” as he says. The full extent of this bold new world, however, is unknown even to him. Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant with the ability to control magnetic fields, meanwhile, is on a very personal mission for vengeance.
As a child in a German concentration camp in occupied Poland, his mother was murdered by a Nazi scientist trying to unlock his powers and he has spent all his years since searching for the man responsible for his mother’s death so that he can enact bloody revenge. The man he is looking for, however, turns out to be Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant with the ability to absorb and project energy and someone who is more than a match for him. Erik is not the only person interested in Shaw though. The CIA has taken a very keen eye on him and his incredibly influential Hellfire Club also and has assigned agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) to discover what he is up to. What she discovers, however, is something completely unlike what she expected as she witnesses Shaw and his compatriots – Emma Frost (January Jones), a stunning ice goddess with telepathic powers and the ability to turn her skin into diamonds, Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a demonic red telepath who brutally dispatches his enemies, and Janos Quested aka Riptide (Álex González), a mutant with the ability to generate powerful tornadoes – showing off their mutant powers.
In order to take on Shaw she enlists the help of Charles and, when they cross paths with Erik, he also finds himself, somewhat reluctantly, joining their cause. They know that that the only way they stand a chance of taking on Shaw and the Hellfire Club is to recruit more mutants and, with the help of a CIA researcher (Oliver Platt) who has always believed that mutants truly exist and whose fellow scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) also turns out to be mutant, having hands for feet, they begin enlisting individuals with unique powers, tracking them down using McCoy’s creation known as Cerebro. Among them are Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), who has the ability to sprout wings and fly, Armando Muñoz aka Darwin (Edi Gathegi), who can “adapt to survive”, being able to breathe under water and turn his skin rock hard, Sean Cassidy aka Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) who can create super high pitched sounds and Alex Summers aka Havok (Lucas Till) who can project powerful beams of energy from his chest. These young mutants each find themselves truly accepted for the first time in their lives as each accepts the other for the things that make them unique and, together, they begin to train, learning to harness and control their powers so that may be used for good. Shaw’s plans, however, are beginning to reveal themselves and it transpires that the megalomaniacal Hellfire Club is hell bent on starting World War Three so that the “normal people” of the world will be wiped out and a new world dominated by mutants can emerge from the rubble.
Manufacturing the Cuban Missile Crisis, Shaw’s plans threaten the future of the world as everyone knows it and Charles and Erik’s team of mutants are the only people who can possibly stop him from carrying out his insidious plot. Rifts, however, are beginning to form between them as many of them realise that they will never be accepted by or welcomed into the world. Despite a connection forming between him and Raven, Hank finds himself despising the things that make him different and setting out to cure himself of his mutation with disastrous results, while Raven begins to embrace her differences, realising that she shouldn’t have to hide from the world, adopting the name Mystique to symbolise it. Charles, meanwhile, wants the mutants to use their powers to keep the world safe but Erik has other ideas, believing mutants to be better than normal human beings and thus worthy of dominating over them. As events come to a head in Cuba and Charles and Erik find themselves not only facing Shaw’s band of mutants but also the combined forces of America and the Soviet Union who see an opportunity to take care of the mutant threat once and for all, the rifts become fully exposed as the mutants take sides, either that of Charles, now calling himself Professor X, or that or Erik, who takes on the name Magneto. Swiftly turning from allies to enemies, the conflict between Professor X and Magneto is one that will forever change the world.
X-Men: First Class is a very different X-Men film to those that have come before it. There are two key reasons as to why this is the case. Firstly, Matthew Vaughn’s direction coupled with his and Jane Goldman’s writing render it as a far more intelligent and grounded superhero movie than the previous X-Men movies – just like with X-Men Origins: Wolverine with its incorporation of the Three Mile Island Incident into the story, this film uses real life historical events, notably the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a backdrop to the plot of the film, grounding the film’s events in a reality of sorts, something which is enhance by the inclusion of real news footage from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in particular President Kennedy’s presidential address on the Crisis – meaning that this isn’t merely a film that looks good but also one that has plenty going on beneath the surface. Secondly, the 60s setting brings considerable class and sophistication to the table, the elegant style that comes from setting the film in this period making this a higher calibre of blockbuster than the past films, the period setting being authentically and stylishly captured in everything from the fashions – the film even boasting a little sexiness as Emma Frost and Moira MacTaggart both don classy lingerie – to the locations and even the themes and issues of the time while the embracing of deeper themes and subtexts relating to the period – the parallels between the way the world views mutants and the civil rights moment are perhaps more prominent here than in the previous films for instance – makes the film come across a lot smarter and provides some food for thought.
Additionally, the James Bond influences, which the film wears on its sleeve, prove to be very welcome and extremely fitting, the globetrotting adventure format making the film seem considerably more exciting while there is much fun to be had from how Shaw’s master plan seems to be right out of the James Bond school of super villainy. The film embraces its 60s setting wholeheartedly and the result is something that is very groovy. The setting of the film in the 1960s coupled with the visual style that Vaughn brings to the table gives the film a distinctive look and style that sets it in a world of its own. The cinematography and editing are both very good, montages of Charles and Erik using Cerebro to locate and recruit mutants and the characters training to use their powers being effective and well executed while the way the film is shot lends it something of an old fashioned feel, making it look almost as though it actually is a 1960s James Bond movie at times. In terms of the special and visual effects, those that we see are mostly very good if never quite truly awe-inspiring – probably not helped by the fact that this film was rushed through production – the make-up and prosthetic effects generally looking realistic enough, even if those on Beast aren’t quite all there, but the CGI not always being as good as it could be.
This, however, is only a very minor complaint as the story, scale and action of the overall film are very spectacular, especially the fantastic Cuban climax involving the X Jet Blackbird and a levitating submarine. Additionally, some of the elegance in the cinematography can also be seen in some of the visual effects, in particular Emma Frost’s diamond skin effect which is very slick and shiny. As I have already said, however, this isn’t just a film that delivers good action and effects but is one that so much more to offer. Unlike the last couple of ‘X-Men’ movies where the action and effects seemed to have been placed higher in the order of things, here characters and plot are put before the action – although the film nonetheless delivers almost flawlessly in the action department as well.
In addition to this being one of the most intelligent X-Men movies yet, there are a number of sly nods to the films that have come before it for fans of those films appreciate, ranging from subtle mentions such as the CIA agent father of William Stryker featuring in one scene to more obvious nods like the original version of Cerebro featuring and a scene where Hank McCoy says to Charles Xavier “Are you sure we can’t shave your head?”, prompting him to reply “Don’t touch my hair” – something which is also referred to again when Charles says “Next thing you know I’ll be going bald”. Fans should also appreciate the inclusion of the yellow X costumes which draw inspiration directly the original 1960s X-Men comics as well as us being shown how Charles loses his ability to walk and how Magneto comes into possession of his iconic helmet as well as coming to don his iconic red costume.
In a major change for a film from 20th Century Fox the running time is in excess of two hours and with this there is no sense that the story is rushed or underdeveloped as has been the case with so many other films released by the studio which had a shorter running time forced upon them. The result is a richly detailed and thoroughly engaging narrative that successfully combines several plot strands and that truly satisfies in terms of its storytelling. A key reason that this works so well is that there is a lot of emphasis on characters, with the character development being mostly superb. Each character really is one of a kind and, while some of the secondary characters – particularly the non mutant characters such as Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggart and Oliver Platt’s Man in Black Suit – don’t get as much focus – the film is first and foremost about Charles and Erik – we do get some major insights into the characters established in the previous films. For instance, the opening scenes set in 1944 – one featuring the young Erik Lensherr in Poland, partially recycling the opening scene from the first X-Men movie but expanding on it by showing the aftermath of the events in this scene, and the other in upstate New York showing the young Charles Xavier, at home in his family mansion, encounters Rave for the first time – take us way back and offer us glimpses into the childhoods of three of the main characters.
The versions of Charles and Erik that we see here are very different to those that we know and are familiar with from the previous films. Far from the restrained individual we met in the original X-Men trilogy, the Charles Xavier of First Class is something of a boozer and a charmer – “The name’s Xavier, Charles Xavier” says he, in one of the film’s many James Bond references – and someone who isn’t averse to using his powers to pick up women. The Magneto we see here on the other hand is a man who only really has one goal, that being to enact vengeance on the man who killed his mother, but through his quest to achieve it discovers a higher calling, us seeing him slowly transform into the villain we know from the previous films as the film progresses. As you might expect, the younger mutant recruits aren’t as thoroughly developed as these two characters but this is not a major criticism as the focus is primarily on Charles and Erik and there is quite sufficient development for the rest of the characters as well. As for the characters on the other side of the line, Emma Frost’s inclusion may prove to be slightly confusing to some given that a younger version of the character also appeared in X-Men Origins Wolverine which was actually set years later but Sebastian Shaw is a very fun villain and one that again seems like a throwback to the classic James Bond movies of the 1960s.
While the film delivers very well in it serious aspects, it doesn’t forget that it is also supposed to be fun and the grooviness doesn’t end with the visuals or the 60s style, the dialogue being very groovy and very funny at times and the film in general being hilarious funny in places although never in a way that makes it feel like everything is being played for laughs. This good dialogue together with the superb character development gives the actors plenty to work with and the result is great characters that are mostly perfectly portrayed. Each and every cast member delivers a note perfect performance here but it should come as no surprise as to who stands out the most. James McAvoy both perfects a distinct British accent delivers a very suave and sophisticated performance as a Charles Xavier that is distinctly his own, him being completely believable as a kindly man with idealistic values but also convincing as a shameless party boy not afraid to use his ability to win over chicks.
Michael Fassbender, meanwhile, really steals the show with a performance that has ample menace but is more than just a typical baddie, him genuinely make us understand and comprehend why his character has adopted his particular outlook on the world, everything he does seeming completely logical in light of his character’s experiences. There is great chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender as well, something that makes us genuinely believes in them as friends and allies and that also makes the rift that forms between them all the more powerful. As for the true baddies of the piece, the often underrated Kevin Bacon, channelling the best of the classic James Bond villains, is fantastic while Jason Flemyng, in a role of few words, puts across a perfectly demonic look and, while she sometimes comes across more as eye candy than anything else, January Jones is elegantly and stylishly beautiful as a character who uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Álex González, on the other hand, isn’t required to do much but look tough as his character generates powerful tornadoes but for what is required of him he still fares well.
As for the younger cast members Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, Edi Gathegi, Caleb Landry Jones and Lucas Till all perform very well but it is recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence who stands out the best, bringing her own interpretation of Mystique to the table. The actors portraying non mutant characters don’t stand out much at really but this is less a criticism of their performances and more of the fact that their characters simply don’t play very big roles in the story, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, Ray Wise (as the US Secretary of State) and even Michael Ironside (as a US ship captain in the film’s climax) all being good but just too little seen. Unfortunately for Marvel fans there is no cameo by Stan Lee here but there is a hilarious surprise cameo appearance by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine to be found. All in all, this is a film that fans should find much to love about (even though fans of the comics will undoubtedly complain about the tampering with certain details) and that also offer plenty for casual moviegoers to enjoy as well. So, another super superhero movie in what is shaping up to a fantastic summer for blockbuster movies, X-Men: First Class is a first class superhero movie that really is in a class all of its own, apart from all the X-Men movies that have come before it. Against all the odds Matthew Vaughn has made what is perhaps the best X-Men movie yet and 20th Century Fox some of my respect for you has now been restored, please don’t lose it again.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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