X-Men: First Class

It’s obvious to anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the industry that Hollywood has, over the past decade or so, become obsessed with comic book adaptations, and 2011 is choked with more of them than any year before. Thor kicked things off a few weeks back, and soon we will be seeing Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Adventures of Tintin, along with several other lesser known comic films. This week, Marvel Studios unleash X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass), a prequel to the previous three X-Men films. Well, the first two anyway. This is in fact the second time we’ve had a movie this year which is the fourth in a series (not to mention the fifth in series Fast Five), and it is becoming hard to get enthused about the endless sequel/remake/reboot machine that Hollywood has become. So, what’s to get excited about in the latest X-Men film? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Perhaps most importantly for many fans (myself included), X-Men: First Class makes almost no reference to the last film in the series, Brett Ratner’s execrable X-Men: The Last Stand, while subtly maintaining links to Bryan Singer’s excellent original two movies. Set in 1962, First Class tells the origins of Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) research into mutant genetics, the formation of his school for gifted youngsters (mutants), and the forging of his friendship, and ultimate rivalry, with Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Having Singer back in the fold as producer and co-writer really pays off, and only highlights how his lack of input on the film series he began effectively destroyed The Last Stand. Singer’s knowledge of the characters and mythology ensures that much that was great about the first two films is back on display, and this is clearly his film. While Vaughn does a competent job in the director’s chair, his sensibilities seem to be more suited to less conventional projects, such as the merciless deconstruction of comic book superhero tropes that was Kick Ass. Still, First Class is a welcome return to form for the series.

The period setting of First Class also adds very welcome variety to the franchise, and the costumes, dialogue and settings all playfully allude to the swinging sixties ideals reminiscent of early James Bond, or perhaps more accurately the Bond-lampooning Flint films. Two particular montage sequences closing out the first and second acts winkingly recreate not only the free-spirited mood of the time, but sixties filmmaking techniques as well. It’s clever, and it works as a nice counterpoint to some of the darker elements, which are where First Class’s strength really lies. While this is a Marvel film, Singer and Vaughn clearly are striving for a more real-world feel than the Avengers universe of the most recent Marvel adaptations. Interweaving the plot into such a defining real-world event as the Cuban missile crisis is ambitious, yet for the most part it works. While it’s maybe a little silly, it is fun to see this kind of revisionist history creeping into the X-Men universe, and it’s nice to have a Marvel film that doesn’t need to play by the Avengers rules.

So, all things considered, X-Men: First Class is largely a successful entry into the series, but I have to add a little addendum to my review: in all honesty I was a little disappointed with the film for one reason. Now that this story has been told, it’s unlikely that we will ever see the long-rumoured Magneto movie. And in light of the fascinating Magneto storyline which constitutes about a third of First Class, there is so much more that could be done with the character. Lehnsherr is presented here as a deeply abused and troubled man, torn between his anger, his desire for revenge and the promises of redemption from Xavier, his closest friend. Fassbender is terrific, more than equal to the performance of Ian McKellen in the previous films, and it’s a great shame that we won’t see his story fleshed out into a full feature. As much as I enjoyed First Class, I kept coming back to this. But I guess this doesn’t amount to much more than nit-picking to most people, so really any fans of the series, or even just quality action movies, should check this one out.

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