For the fifth film in Fox & Marvel’s franchise they turned to the writer/director team which reinvigorated the comic book/superhero sub genre last year with Kick Ass. Matthew Vaughn had originally been in line to direct the third X-Men, but stepped aside and let Brett Ratner helm the weakest in the franchise until Gavin Hood delivered the muddled, silly and pointless Wolverine. So with this prequel of sorts, writer by Jane Goldman and Vaughn deliver a fast paced, entertaining and intriguing X film which tells the story of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erk Lehnsherr (Magneto) and the birth of their friendship – and by extension the birth of The X-Men.
In many ways this is an inspired decision. The thought of seeing another X-Men with the same characters and setting fills me with a sense of apathy. Like most comic book franchises the most you can really expect to get out of it before audiences and storylines feel fatigued in 3 films. After which some rejuvenation and reinvention is required. Wolverine may have been the first attempt at standalone solo efforts from X-Men, but its failure has seen Fox return to the tried and tested waters of multiple X-men working together to fight a global evil.
By focussing on Prof. X and Magneto the film explores the backstory set up in the original franchise (and pre-existing from the comics) and in doing so allows not only a 60s set Cold War story line, but also the introduction of a host of new mutants and more entertainingly the writers deliver a healthy dose of explanation around things such as what really lead to Prof. X and Magneto’s friendship ending as well as many other little nods to the comic’s heritage.
The film therefore walks a fine line between over-familiarity and reinvention. Sequels will know doubt follow, and potentially even bring us up to the original X-Men film (although I somewhat doubt it). The introduction of some of the franchises most intriguing mutants and also incorporating enough of the original trilogy’s mutants (Mystique, Beast etc) makes the film feel like a sequel without ever feeling like a sequel.
The real highlight of the film, and its heart, are James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Stepping into the somewhat intimidating shoes of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen could not have been easy, for either the writers or the actors. They brought gravitas to the earlier films and helped ground the fantastical story. Here, as both are beginning we can see some of the roots of their later incarnations. Fassbender fares the better, not because he gives a better performance but because his character has more meat to chew on, as well as the better action scenes. As Lehnsherr was a victim of the holocaust his story immediately has more weight than McAvoy’s life of luxury and top class education. In fact, its hard not to emphasis with Lehnsherr as his belief that mutants are better than man is formed. If anything the story is too heavily slanted in his favour throughout, especially as most of the human characters are either afraid or wanting to suppress the mutant race.
The bad guys are a healthy blend of well known faces (hello Kevin Bacon – possibly the series most fun villain), January (Mad Men) Jones as Emma Frost, and new faces who together fulfil the missing mutant factor of a couple of the original trilogies interesting X-Men (Storm & Nightcrawler) though neither of them are as menacing or well explored as their forebears. To a degree this felt like a missed opportunity as more interesting and new powers could have been utilised. Jones and Bacon are the two stand outs, even if Jones does little more than look stunning (not hard really) and turn into ice.
The action scenes are well handled and generally quite good although they never quite reach the great heights of X-2, the finale is something to behold as the world comes to the brink of war and Vaughn manages to handle multiple action beats with style, pace and clarity. On a downside, often, with these types of stories, the vast number of characters and their abilities are often overlooked as major characters are pushed to the front (this is certainly true of the first 3 X-Men films), yet here, somehow each character is given a moment to shine and the characters powers all seem to come in handy – a slight contrivance of the plot perhaps, but that would be nitpicking.
In the end, X-Men First Class may not be the reimagining or re-envisioning or whatever they call reboots of popular franchises, but with a host of new characters, a period setting and two excellent central performances from Fassbender and McAvoy, First Class is well…. first class (if you excuse the glaringly obvious pun). As for sequels, do we need one. Could we not instead explore the many variations available from decades of comics.