Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn


A while back, this critic reviewed Thirteen Days, which sought to tell the story of what went on behind the scenes in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As much as that film strove for accuracy, there wasn’t any mention of any mutant activity off the Cuban coast at that time. X-Men: First Class portrays a very different view of those events; mutated history, if you will.

Bryan Singer’s original films in the franchise, the still-excellent X-Men and the superior X2, though centred on the character of Wolverine, prided themselves on the diversity of characters on offer. Many of the characters in the original films do not feature in First Class (including Wolverine), but two of the most important ones do. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) are leading very different lives as the film opens. Whilst the former lived a pampered childhood, the latter’s ability to manipulate metal was being tested in a Nazi concentration camp by Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Years later, their fates would collide, and an alliance was born that would define both men, that would eventually collapse, and in turn would lead to the horrors of X-Men: The Last Stand. When asked by CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) to use their powers in the fight against communism, Xavier and Lensherr recruit a band of bright young things (‘thing’ being the operative word) to form a new band of mutant defence. They include Xavier’s shape-shifting protegé Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), brilliant scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and laser-spouting jailbird Alex Summers (Lucas Till). Whilst these young recruits start doling out nicknames, Xavier (a.k.a. Professor X) and Lensherr (a.k.a. Magneto) train them as best they can to fight against not only the looming Communist threat, but a force of mutants working against them and led by a foe from Lensherr’s past… Time to bring home the Bacon!

And so, we end up on the Cuban coast once more. The third act climax is as big and explosive as you’d expect, but the film is in a heck of a rush to get there. There’s a lot of story to cram into 2-and-a-bit hours, and First Class is determined to get it all in. We watch Xavier’s hedonistic college days, whilst Lensherr undertakes a worldwide mission to hunt down the Nazi commandants who tortured him (a scene in an Argentinian bar pushes the PG-13/12A ratings to the limit). X and Magneto are the focus, and that means that some characters are doomed to suffer. None of Shaw’s henchmen (January Jones’ Emma Frost, Álex González’s Riptide or Jason Flemyng’s Azazel) get a backstory, or much in the way of dialogue; ditto Oliver Platt’s CIA honcho, who is credited in Man In Black Suit. Ouch. However, both script and director do pay attention to the 1960s setting; delightfully retro production and costume design is reminiscent of Connery-era Bond. The splicing in of footage of mushroom clouds and JFK’s addresses loans a certain gravitas to proceedings, but it doesn’t sit altogether well with scenes of submarines being lifted out of water and shape-shifting teenagers. The rush to get this film released is reflected in the so-so CGI and Fassbender’s accent, which does more globetrotting than the actual plot. Both he and McAvoy do their best, but it’s difficult to inhabit roles that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have made their own. There aren’t any bad performances here, though none of any particular note (except for one brilliant cameo). Vaughn seems to have worked out his most outlandish visual tendencies in the ridiculous Kick-Ass, and delivers a solid, if not definitive prequel. One can appreciate Twentieth Century Fox’s keenness to banish X-Men Origins: Wolverine from the public consciousness, but has they given First Class a longer gestation period, it could have truly lived up to its title.


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