Bryan Singer delivered the fantastic ‘X2: X-Men United’ back in 2003, since then the franchise lost its sheen in Brett Ratner’s disappointing third installment and finally imploded with the release of the horrid ‘Wolverine’ spinoff. Thankfully, X-Men: First Class has a sharp, intelligent script - it’s everything an origin story should be, complete with a cool 60’s James Bond-esque retro vibe. The reboot particularly stands out because this is one of the very few superhero films where the big budget CGI is merely an accessory to the snazzy character development, energy, power struggles and dollops of humour.
X-Men: First Class begins in 1944 Poland with a sequence reminiscent of the opening scene of the first film. A young Jewish boy named Erik is separated from his mother at a concentration camp; as he is dragged away by German soldiers the boy manages to bend the metal fences around the camp by will. Intrigued, Gestapo chief Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon) summons the boy and orders him to demonstrate his mutant abilities. Erik is unable to control his power, until Shaw kills his mother - an incident that finally unleashes his power and decides his vengeful future. Elsewhere, a mind-reading rich young kid named Charles becomes a surrogate brother to a cobalt-blue shape-shifting little girl called Raven.
Flash forward 20 years and we’re thrust bang in the middle of the cold war. Enter Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who is now a brilliant scientist and also a playboy who picks up women using his telepathic powers. Erik (Michael Fassbender) has learned to use his metal-bending abilities to quench his thirst for vengeance. Shaw is still alive and is secretly making arrangements for World War 3 for the greater good of the mutant species. A CIA operative named Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) recruits Charles and Erik to help her uncover Shaw’s plans. Charles and Erik strike up a friendship and eventually work together to recruit and train other mutants, including the shape-shifting Mystique (the lovely Jennifer Lawrence). Needless to say, Charles and Erik have contrasting philosophies, and polarizing views of the role mutants should play in society. And if you’ve seen the earlier X-Men films, you know what their friendship turned out to be.
Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) doles out a truly well-written and plausible origin tale here, together with sumptuous, stylish visuals and a faux historical twist that gives us a comic book version of a Tom Clancy bestseller. The pacing is relentless – X-Men: First Class rarely stops for a breather, and when it does, it offers a couple of cameo appearances from familiar faces that should have X-Men fans cheering. The film hits the sweet spot with the casting of McAvoy and Fassbender who’re so effortlessly dedicated to their roles you won’t believe they’re newcomers to the franchise. Fassbender in particular, gives an arresting performance with his ever-present righteous anger. Kevin Bacon is supremely villainous here, doing away with the smarm we’ve seen of him in the past. We’re introduced to some of the most popular X-Men like Emma Frost (January Jones) who can also transform her body into a diamond casing, the winged mutant Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), a demon-like teleporter named Azazel (Jason Flemyng), the ultrasonic Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the whirlwind creating Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who also made an appearance in X3.
The bald spot of X-Men: First Class is January Jones as Emma Frost, who seems clueless and doesn’t do much else than stand about in bras and big hair, looking mildly PMS-y, oblivious of the words coming out of her own mouth. Another niggle is the character of Angel whose introduction is the most fun moment of the film but whose crossover to the antagonist’s side is very shoddily established.
However the in-jokes themselves are worth the price of admission. Sample the scene where Charles is trying out the Cerebro for the first time - McCoy asks “Are you sure we can’t shave your head?”, and Charles is quick to respond with “Don’t touch my hair”. The retro score by Henry Jackman (Kick-Ass, Monsters vs Aliens) just about perfectly goes with the gritty, stripped down look of the film. That’s not to say the CGI is underwhelming – it’s first rate, and the bombastic, epic finale is more than just satisfying for all the senses.
X-Men: First Class is an exceptional entry in the series. It is smart, witty and a lot of fun. Watch it on the biggest screen possible.
First published in DNA