1 June 2011
X-Men: First Class
2011, 132mins, 12
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writer (s): Jane Goldman, Zack Stentz, Ashley Miller, Matthew Vaughn, Bryan Singer
Cast includes: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones
UK Release Date: 2nd June 2011
After 2006’s disappointing “X-Men: The Last Stand”, it was tough to predict where Fox might steer their prized cash cow next, the series having seemingly run out of steam following the limp third installment. Of course there was 2009’s forgettable “Wolverine”, but that always felt more like a Hugh Jackman vehicle than an outright X-Men property, leaving me to disregard it as a true franchise picture. Consequently we now have a prequel in the form of “X-Men: First Class”, Fox bringing things back to the beginning in order to fuel further box-office kerching. Returning Bryan Singer in the capacity of producer seemed like an advisable move (the talented filmmaker having helmed 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s wonderful “X2”), but it’s the introduction of director Matthew Vaughn that really ratchets “First Class” up a notch, the British visionary doing a remarkable job with this origin story. “First Class” is a stunningly accomplished blockbuster, brilliantly cast and filled with skillfully executed action, all wrapped within a darling sixties aesthetic.
The year is 1962, and war between the USA and USSR is looming. CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers that former Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is plotting to ensure conflict between the two superpowers ensues, all so that he may lead a mutant uprising from the ashes of a nuclear winter. In order to help solve the dilemma and stop Shaw, Moira recruits Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) to help build up a squad of mutants that America might later deploy in order to tackle Shaw and the impending threat of global warfare. Charles locates a selection of promising young mutants to groom in his own peaceful image, much to the chagrin of Erik (Michael Fassbender), a member of the team with a ferocious vendetta against Shaw
“First Class” is one of the most invigorating comic book flicks I’ve seen for some time, and almost certainly the best since Vaughn’s last trip behind the camera with the excellent “Kick-Ass”. Reuniting with scribe Jane Goldman (writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz are also onboard), Vaughn crafts something truly compelling here, bolstering the usual origin story shenanigans using deft performances, tight scripting and more introspection than a thousand “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels. Yes, the action beats are also sublime, but “First Class” distinguishes itself on the basis of character development and thespian contribution, the filmmakers clearly insistent that more be offered here than flashy explosions and CGI carnage.
McAvoy and Fassbender are terrific as Charles and Erik, doing so much more than simply rehashing the work previously undertaken by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. McAvoy shows glimmers of the wisdom and pathos that would later form Professor X as we more commonly know him, but also does a fine job of exploring the character indulging his less mature tendencies, finding specific fascination with drinking habits and erratic attempts at womanizing. It’s a turn that balances strong ambition with a more lighthearted side, McAvoy a perfectly playful choice to tackle the part. Fassbender is gloomier and less communicative, but dominates the screen fabulously, combining efficiently with the screenplay to take Erik down an organic and necessarily dour path, ensuring that his arc wraps up with the appropriate degree of justified malice. In their shared scenes the actors match each other blow for blow, forming a believable friendship, all the while energetically arguing their differing viewpoints on the mutant cause.
The magical casting continues well into the support, Jennifer Lawrence and Kevin Bacon are both especially exceptional. Bacon stinks of evil, the actor forgoing any semblance of sympathy in order to grant “First Class” with a thoroughly despicable villain. Goldman and Vaughn aren’t preoccupied with dissecting the character’s motives, rather in concocting a screen entity who boasts a truly merciless disposition, turning to betrayal and even horrid scientific experimentation to satisfy his own ghastly desires. Lawrence on the other hand has to naturally convey a shift in loyalty throughout the picture; it is after all no secret that she ends up becoming one of Erik’s key companions later in the saga. It’s a subtle performance, laced with innocence and engaging angst, the actress juggling her inner turmoil with several refreshing romantic connections rather gracefully. Like Charles and Erik, “First Class” provides Raven with a soul and robustly formed range of personal difficulties, the gorgeous Lawrence expressing these articulately.
Vaughn appears to have styled “First Class” very much in the vein of early Bond adventures, capturing the period through the film’s joyful tone, cheeky soundtrack and ace cinematography. Vaughn never overshoots the feature, instead applying little touches to help establish a sense of place, such as fashion sense and certain character designs. For instance Shaw’s most trusted ally Emma Frost (portrayed by a ravishing January Jones) has all the traits of a classic sixties Femme Fatale, from her sexualized outfits to her methods of negotiation. It’s just one example of “First Class” fully embracing its position in the X-Men timeline, turning what might have been a campy detractor into a full blown advantage.
The set-pieces are fittingly spectacular, Vaughn generally maintaining real heat and threat, whilst managing to keep his camera moving at an excitable but fully coherent rate. I suppose it would be hard to label any of these big brash action moments as revelatory, but they are always enjoyable and competently assembled, even if at times the digital effects aren’t flawless. “First Class” isn’t afraid to be funny on occasion either, a fantastic cameo and a raucously penned exchange within a strip club coming off as distinctive highlights. However Vaughn and Goldman never let these jovial little segments disrupt the flow of the film thematically, instead using comedy as well timed relief from the serious plotting and complex troubles inflicted upon the story’s protagonists
Even at a bulky 132 minutes “First Class” refuses to feel stale, remaining immensely gripping for the entirety of its beefy runtime. After the major letdown of “The Last Stand” it’s a real pleasure to see this series regain its footing, confidently delivering a thrill ride of hidden depths and obvious pleasures. It confirms Vaughn and Goldman as a creative duo to be reckoned with, but most importantly represents a tent-pole release fully worth your time and money. Considering what this summer season has given us thus far, that’s probably the most encouraging positive of all.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011