Odeon East Kilbride, 02.06.11
The year of sequel followed by prequel followed by sequel roles on, with another outing for the X-Men, although this franchise at least has the decency to offer a historical prequel reboot, thereby giving it a certain freshness lacking from other multiple offerings like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011) and Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011).
X-Men – First Class is set in the 1960’s, at the height of the cold war, and tells the story of the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) as he finishes University and begins to harness his telepathic powers. Meanwhile, a young Eric Lehnsherr is using his own magnetic powers to travel round the globe in search of revenge for the death of his mother at the hands of vicious Nazi officer (Kevin Bacon) in a German concentration camp. Eventually Charles and Eric cross paths and together with a small band of fellow mutants, take on the Nazi officer, revealed as a mutant and now reinvented as Sebastian Shaw, and set upon starting nuclear war between Russia and the US to destroy the human race and leave the mutants in charge.
First Class plays on the strengths of the X-Men franchise. The political background, and the analogy between the treatment of the mutants by humans mirroring the real world treatment of many minority ethnic groups, are what makes the X-Men universe stand out above most superhero or comic adaptations. This is more than the story of an adolescent teenager having to come to terms with his responsibility and harnessing their powers. And it is this that makes the X-Men a rich vein of material to play with. While it obviously over-simplifies the political situation of the 1960’s, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even trivialises the German Concentration Camps, the very fact these topics are discussed and used as a backdrop lends the film a weight that others miss, for example the recent fantasy Thor. It grounds the film in a certain reality that gives the moral questions faced by the superheros more meaning than just the typical good-versus-evil storyline. This is exemplified by the central storyline of Xavier and Eric as they become friends, but with very different moralities that eventually lead to their fall out.
The genesis of their relationship is one of several strands that neatly reward viewers of the original trilogy of films. Along the way we also get to see how Raven transforms into Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and becomes Magneto’s ally, how Xavier sustained his injury that leaves him in a wheelchair, how Hank McCoy becomes the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and how Magneto gets his distinctive metal helmet. There are some neat cameos, and even an attempt to acknowledge, though perhaps not adequately explain, why Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) isn’t a more prominent member of the team in this prequel. There’s neat references to CIA involvement, the uniforms the X-Men wear and the creation of the X Jet. True fans of the original comics may pick up inconsistencies, but to the average viewer, there is little of these things to complain about.
The action scenes are well directed by Matthew Vaughn, following on from Kick-Ass (2010), he is gradually establishing himself as the director to go to when comic action and violence are the order of the day. Having walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, one wonders if that would have been a better film had he been given the chance to direct it. McAvoy and Fassbender take the place of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen and cope admirably. Some of the younger cast get little time to shine as so many new characters are squeezed into the two-hour running time.
A marked improvement on the last entry two X-Men entries – X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, Brett Ratner) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood) – and a return to the tone and style set by Bryan Singer in the first two films, First Class injects new life into the franchise and opens up the possibility of more sequels to the prequel, which for one franchise at least, offers the possibility of expanding and improving on the original, unlike most of the cash-in franchise films seen so far this year.
Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.