Principal Cast : James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Zoe Kravitz, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Ray Wise, Caleb Landry Jones, Jason Flemyng, Rade Sherbedgia, Michael Ironside, Rebecca Romijn, Morgan Lily, Edi Gathegi, Alex Gonzalez.
Synopsis: A band of mutant humans, each with their own unique powers, tries to prevent nuclear war breaking out during the Cuban missile crisis – only to find that perhaps a new war is only just beginning.
Okay Matthew Vaughn: you got me. Here I was thinking X-Men as a franchise on film was pretty much in the toilet, ever since the considerable debacle that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine nosedived into the sewer. Thankfully, First Class manages to scrape off the barnacles on this mighty franchise and polish things up to a sparkly, telepathic-enhanced shine. Director Vaughn re-cast the key roles of Magneto and Professor X, reset the timeframe to the 60’s (specifically around the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and introduced even more new mutant characters to enjoy. Filled with subtext on many levels, not just the obvious “reverse racism” material that the earlier films dissected in detail, First Class has plenty to offer both the long-time viewer and the franchise newcomer. For those who came in late, the previous entries into this X-Men world came in a trilogy of films: X-Men, X-Men 2, and X-Men: The Last Stand, all of which was followed up by the Wolverine-centric X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The latter film, in which Hugh Jackman couldn’t elevate a diabolical script and terrible narrative beyond a B-movie turd, could have spelled the end to the franchise had 20th Century Fox not approached Matthew Vaughn after his stunning work on Kick-Ass, inviting him to revamp a once might series. Thank goodness he did, because Vaughn has managed to helm a film which is on par with, if not better than, the original Singer-directed duo. It’s flashy, flamboyant, classy, emotional, and altogether exactly what a team-up film ought to be.
In the dying days of World War II, a young Eric Lensherr is interred at a Nazi death camp [in a spot-on shot-for-shot recreation of the opening sequence in the first X-Men film], where his power to influence magnetic fields is noticed by Doctor Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), who proceeds to test the boy’s abilities by coercing him to move a coin across a table. Meanwhile, a young Charles Xavier runs into a homeless shape-shifter called Raven, and the two become friends. Xavier’s (James McAvoy) life of privilege, as well as his telepathic ability, lead him to study at Oxford University in the field of human mutation, where he draws the notice of the CIA who seek his opinion on the recently uncovered mutant “problem” of Sebastian Shaw – a seemingly immortal Dr Schmidt, now with an American accent and having mutant powers of his own – who seeks to start a nuclear was between America and the Soviet Union. A CIA agent, Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is sent to recruit Xavier, who in turn befriends a vengeful Lenscherr (Michael Fassbender) and together they begin the charge of finding and recruiting more mutants to their cause. Shaw, together with his female accomplice Emma Frost (January Jones) and teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng), launch their plans into action when the Soviets deploy an arsenal of nuclear warheads into Cuba, just off the coast of the USA. Xavier and Lenscherr, together with their raw recruits including Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, whom keen-eyed viewers will recognize as the same young lad who starred with Hugh Grant in About A Boy), and Havok (Lucas Till), must face off against Shaw and his allies, all while trying to prevent thermonuclear holocaust.
The major question you need to ask of First Class, and I guess the same goes for any film based on a pre-existing franchise format (with X-Men, it’s comic books), is whether or not the film is too bogged down in its own mythology to make much sense to the lay-viewer. Films like this run the risk of having too many nods to the core audience, the fanboys, while in doing so alienating the less knowledgeable viewer. Would my wife, for example, who’s never read a comic book in her life, enjoy this film without knowing anything about the characters or the world they exist in? I would answer yes, the probably would, because Matthew Vaughn’s done a terrific job of getting the (often difficult) balance between keeping the characters true to their origins and making them equally accessible to a new audience. Come to think of it, I can’t say it’s all Vaughn’s success, though, because the cast do the lions share of work in involving the audience in their plight. Lead actors James McAvoy, as the soon-to-be-Patrick-Stewart-Professor-X, and Michael Fassbender (as Eric Lenscherr, soon-to-be-Ian-McKellan-as-Magneto) deliver worthy performances for the characters they play. Fassbender in particular makes the twisted, anarchic Magneto we knew from the Singer films more human, or at least empathetic to our eyes, while McAvoy delivers a heartfelt, wide-eyed optimism in Xavier, who soon discovers that not all mutants he uncovers share his beliefs that they can co-exist with humanity.
Kevin Bacon does a great job as the slimy, powerfully mutated Shaw, even though his character never lives up to his potential – a weak point of this film, I think. Only in a few moments do we ever really feel the power of him as a threat, instead the script seems content to have him pulling the strings behind the scenes and never delivering a great payoff in the end. Bacon is suitably comic-book-ish, chewing the scenery and outclassing just about every actor he appears on screen with. Rose Byrne, as Moira, doesn’t have a lot to do except look confused and determined in equal amounts, while January Jones is horribly miscast as Emma Frost – if you want a great example of bad, wooden acting, Jones’ work here is worth a look. Nicholas Hoult, as the future Beast, does a terrific job as Hank McCoy, whose romance with Raven, played by a coquettish Jennifer Lawrence, is the human heart of this film, and both Hoult and Lawrence deliver what’s needed. Cameo appearances by Oliver Platt, as a CIA agent who believes in the mutant cause, and Michael Ironside as the US Navy commander facing down the advancing Russian fleet in the films’ final act, are always excellent to watch, while Caleb Landry Jones’s work as Havok, the former-inmate-come-asshole jock who can’t control his abilities, is also a laugh. January Jones aside, the entire cast is on-par with the material, delivering believable and accessible performances to truly humanize the plight of the mutant characters.
Unlike previous X-Men films, First Class has a definite international flavour – thanks mainly to the transcontinental nature of the plot, bringing characters from all across the world into the film’s scope. While previous films took place within the USA (mainly), here the cast travel across the globe, from Russia, to Germany, England and even what looks like the Caribbean, and the 60’s production style looks fantastic as a backdrop. Vaughn manages to make this film feel modern while being set in the past, a tricky thing to pull off at the best of times. He never pauses to reflect on the anachronistic comedy some might sprinkle through this film, hints at future events are not evident at all, and I appreciated Vaughn’s restraint in this regard. Don’t think that there aren’t a few moments of humour in the film, because there certainly are some laugh-out-loud bits where I, well, laughed out loud, but they’re at the service of the story and not for a cheap gag to keep the fanboys happy. The visual effects are, for the most part, pretty top notch, although a few green-screen moments did crop up where I was taken out of the film somewhat. Still, Vaughn’s no stranger to effects, coming off Kick-Ass which had plenty, and his handling of the large-scale visuals this film has to offer is equally as good as Singer’s was in the first and second film.
X-Men: First Class is a return to form for the formerly ailing franchise – as a comic book film, it stands tall amongst its peers as a valid, solid effort with very few faults. As a film in and of itself, there will be some who might wonder what all the fuss is about, but those who dare to take a trip into the mutant world (for the first time, or the five hundredth time) will find themselves rewarded with a magnificently mounted, well acted and superbly crafted work of fiction that managed to make you think, while kicking you in the face with cool.