X-Men: First Class is the fifth X-Men film since 2000 and yet, in the wake of Pirates 4’s tedious rehash, it serves as a pleasant reminder that remoulding a familiar formula can be successful if the individual elements are strong.
And that’s the case with X-Men: First Class, a film which many, including myself, feared had come too soon. With the exception of one or two unnecessary (though admittedly satisfying) cameos this is a reworking of the franchise which eschews everything we saw in the trilogy Bryan Singer started in 2000. The film also stands alone outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is building up to The Avengers next year, and as such doesn’t suffer from the same narrative qualms seen in Iron Man 2 and, to a lesser extent, Thor.
Though many of the characters will be familiar, the screenwriting team (which includes director Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) have wisely decided to shift the central focus away from Wolverine (who isn’t involved here) and onto Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr, Professor X and Magneto respectively. The advertising campaign suggested their relationship would be at the film’s core and the storyline establishes itself nicely around it.
It’s the 60s and villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is attempting to manipulate US and Soviet forces into clashing in order to bring about World War III, thus leaving the path clear for mutants, the “next stage of human evolution” to take their rightful place. Xavier’s and Lehnsherr’s reactions to the question of whether mutants should integrate with ordinary humans or set out on their own have always been at the heart of the X-Men canon, and here the dilemma is posed again. But don’t let those alarm bells put you off, because there is new life in this reboot.
The film’s opening reel has a lot to do and not much time to do it in, as it flits about between time zones and locations, establishing connections and motivations for the various characters. Fortunately, though it’s fast-paced and jumpy, the strands don’t feel disconnected and, once the film settles down, it’s easy to understand the necessity for such a compact and efficient beginning. Crucially, the script manages to keep the motivations and anxieties of its many characters pretty much in check, even if some are obviously sidelined in favour of others. Though the script handles them well, those character nuances, so important to ensembles like this, would have been lost were it not for the efforts of the cast. In particular, James McAvoy (as Professor X) and Michael Fassbender (as Magneto) bring pleasing weight to their roles. Watching the professor attempt to guide his friend to turn a satellite dish (in a scene reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back) with his burgeoning powers is heartfelt rather than hammy.
Around them, the young cast do well in truncated roles. Newcomers Havok, Angel, Darwin and Banshee aren’t given a huge amount of screen time, but that allows the film’s primary subplot, concerning Mystique and Beast, to come through strongly. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult do well to establish their relationship in such a short time and their youthful concerns about fitting in and being normal are believable, even if the storyline is thematically familiar and bears some similarities to the previous trilogy.
In terms of spectacle, the film doesn’t disappoint. Vaughn handles his mutants carefully and the action scenes in general are well choreographed and edited. Shaw’s mutant followers include lesser-known mutant Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a teleporter who provides some of the best moments, even if his jumping antics can’t quite match the bravado opening scene of Singer’s X2. In general the film looks great, though there are a few CGI weaknesses here and there, most notably the sound waves emitted by Banshee, Riptide’s tornadoes and White Queen’s crystal form. Also, I never quite came around to the design on Beast’s full blue form, but you can’t have everything.
Although every film should be judged on its own merits, it is inevitable that people will compare this to the recent trilogy. For my money, First Class is closest to X2 in terms of overall quality (though it doesn’t equal it) and it crucially doesn’t feel recycled (take note, Pirates 4). It’s far from perfect, though. At times the dialogue becomes quite exposition heavy and some of the motivations, particularly those of the military in the climactic scene, feel a little forced. It also suffers from a desire to resolve all the issues it thinks the audience are expecting to be resolved in the space of one film. As I said, the film in general handles its narratives well, but it does feel like the screenplay wants very much to get everything in place for a sequel by the time the credits roll. There will almost certainly be a sequel in the coming years, possibly two, but after seeing First Class I find myself actually looking forward to that prospect rather than dreading it, which was my fear before I went in.