6 June 2011


Last time we were here, it was for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a cartoonish mess that I should have been less fair to when it was originally released. To pique my interest in X-Men after that catastrophe, it would take a total reboot of the series that went back to character-based storylines and had a level-headed director like Matthew Vaughn at the helm. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

In principle, X-Men: First Class is a prequel, covering the formation of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Charles Xavier is a telepathic Oxford professor who's roped in by the CIA to battle Sebastian Shaw, a Nazi war criminal and a powerful mutant in his own right, and prevent him and his Hellfire Club from inciting the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then World War III. This path brings Charles into contact with Erik Lensherr, a Holocaust survivor with powers of magnetism, who has his own score to settle with Shaw.

Original X-director Bryan Singer returns here, in the capacity of a producer, and as with his Superman Returns, this one is in selective continuity with the previous films. Specifically, the film discounts X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine in its timey-wimey adjustment, but respects X-Men and X-Men 2, Singer's films. The Singer-less X-Men films suck, so I've no particular problem there, but it's a half-measure, again like Superman Returns.

The Last Stand and Wolverine rammed the series into a brick wall, so I personally went into this one hoping for a full-on reboot, and not the semi-prequel that X-Men: First Class turns out to be. It's also another 20th Century Fox X-Men movie. At its heart, that means it's a bid to keep the rights to the characters from reverting to Marvel Studios, who are doing a roaring trade with their own movies right about now. And so, around a year ago, this film hardly existed, except in long-gestating plans to make a movie about Erik Lensherr.

The work put into that is what shines through best in First Class, with Michael Fassbender turning in a truly star-making performance in the role. I'm not the first to compare this film to one of Sean Connery's James Bond movies, but as someone who's been watching Sean Connery's James Bond movies all year, I have to agree wholeheartedly. Kevin Bacon and January Jones serve as Bond villain and Bond girl, but it's made extra cool because we get the super-powered equivalent of how Blofeld would have fared against Daniel Craig's Bond. Fassbender's Erik is damaged and righteously angry and, damn me for saying it, a magnetic screen presence.

And because his arc was best developed, you'll find it impossible to escape the feeling that the mooted solo Magneto movie would have been a better shot in the arm for the series, post-Wolverine. James McAvoy fares almost as well as Charles Xavier, making the sage professor we remember into a cheeky and flirty young man, whose epigram about mutation from the first two films now serves as a nifty chat-up line in Oxford bars. When watching Fassbender and McAvoy together, the latter earns his place in this version of Erik's story, which is more than the rest of the ensemble cast manage.

The capacity is definitely there in the source material for an ensemble film, and yet all the X-Men films before this one have foregrounded Wolverine. Seeing as how this one is sort of lacking in the Hugh Jackman stakes, Fassbender easily, even if unintentionally, takes the lead. 20th Century Fox have essentially marketed this film as Another X-Men Film, with posters that look identical to those of the previous four films. Although that says nothing of this film's innovations, some of it is borne out in the way that the supporting cast loiter around the same way they appear to loiter on the poster.

Although Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence are hugely impressive as Beast and Mystique respectively, all of their fellow classmates are less well-known X-Men, and so the X-Men Babies side of the film really bogs down the narrative. I've speculated many a time that the top brass at Fox are to blame for all of their films' problems, and it's never more apparent than when you see formula and narrative obviousness obfuscate a film that could generally have been much better.

Hats off to Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman, who've pulled all of this together in less than a year and made a stylish and intelligent film that has tantalising glimmers of a five-star effort throughout. The shift from the other films' "not too distant future" to a recognisable period setting is pretty much the making of this far superior effort, but it veers too close to coming undone when it runs into unpolished lumps of dialogue and confused sub-plots. Eventually, it doesn't supersede X-Men 2 as the series' high watermark, because these problems slow the film right down.

It almost feels churlish to complain that X-Men: First Class isn't as good as it could have been when it came together so quickly and more importantly, so well. Unfortunately, certain pivotal character moments are fully exhausted by the time the credits roll on this one, making the plot is the most rushed part of a very zippy production. However, it does great service to Erik Lensherr, the most interesting character in the comics, with a phenomenal turn by Michael Fassbender. Imagine what Vaughn could have done with two or three years, if he did this in just one.

X-Men: First Class is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen X-Men: First Class, why not share your comments below? And y'know, January Jones' Emma Frost was indeed like Pussy Galore. A walking lingerie exhibition who should have been a more feisty and intelligent female character...

 I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.


The Jester said...

Hey Mark the Mad Prophet...Love the moniker.. I am The Jester and I also started writing an all film review website through blogger nearly a year ago. Our formats are different, but still about the movies. Check out what I do and read my First Class review here http://www.nobadmovies.net/2011/06/x-men-first-class.html
Would love to know where you are and writing from and what you think of my work. Thanks

NerdyRachelMay said...

"magnetic screen presence"
Shame on you. x

Mark said...

Totally unintentional, just an honest turn of phrase, but once I'd written it, I had to leave it in. :D
You're back from holidays then?