Can it really be 8 years since the great X2: X-Men United was released? Shocking, I know but that was the last time it seems anyone enjoyed an X-Men movie, until now. This franchise was dead in the water, X-Men: The Last Stand was a mess of a movie whilst X-Men Origins: Wolverine was one of the dullest action movies of the decade, what could it take to bring this franchise back to the former glory of the first two movies? The team behind Kick-Ass and an all round awesome cast; that should just about do it. The film charts the early years before the first 3 movies and sometime during the fourth (I guess, but who knows with the timeline of that movie), showing the audience what made Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) the men we know today.
X-Men: First Class begins with a shot for shot remake of the opening scene from X-Men with young Magneto (Bill Milner) being escorted into a Nazi death camp. This is almost a stamp of approval showing us that we are going back to what made X-Men such a fine franchise to begin with, real story with great characters (not just throwing as many mutants at the screen as possible and hoping something sticks). The underlying theme of prejudice is still as strong as ever and is nicely surrounded by the 1960s background, the idea of America being so on edge over the Cuban missile crisis that they are willing to attack anything they don’t understand works superbly. The villainous plot of Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) is nothing new to the series, it’s a simple “erase all the humans” storyline but the way he executes the plan alongside actual historical events is what makes it so appealing. The main plot here though is how the X-Men came to be, the development of both Erik and Charles is wonderful to watch, Charles growing from ladies man to teacher when he realises he has something to offer the world and Erik’s love of Charles but hatred for what he stands for is very nicely set up. The plot lags a little in the middle which does feel a lot like a training montage from an 80s movie but there is a spirit of fun that which makes you forgive the movie.
The real strength this movie has is that it is a comic book movie through and through. Unlike Iron Man and The Dark Knight that have tried to shake away the cheesy comic book backgrounds by placing their heroes in very realistic worlds (well, semi realistic for Iron Man), X-Men: First Class embraces its heritage with dialogue that sounds like it might have come straight from the pen of Stan Lee and direction that is very reminiscent of comic book panels (lots of side shots and use of actual panel shots that were once sneered at when over used in Hulk but fit in perfectly with the tone of this film). Director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman have a real love for comic books, they understand that they need to be over the top and campy but at the same time offer something relevant and stunning and here they do that, by capturing the same tone of the X-Men comic books of the 60s and 70s and never feeling too bogged down in nostalgia. This film was famously rushed into production but the only point where it was ever noticeable was some of the make up effects which didn’t look perfect, especially on the character of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) who didn’t seem to have the ability to close his mouth. It seems clear that in the rushed months of production that Goldman and Vaughn were hard at work on what the movie would be about and how it would look and left the effects for later (something Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood could probably learn from).
One of the reasons this film is such a success comes in the form of its splendid cast. McAvoy and Fassbender are both perfect in their roles as Xavier and Erik, never once do we miss Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as whenever our two new leads are on screen together it bubbles with charisma and chemistry, despite the lack of time spent on building their relationship within the film, we believe in it so strongly because both actors give tremendous performances. Fassbender has a wonderful scene in a bar where every line is delivered in German, which makes us remember why we loved him so much in Inglorious Basterds. The new kids are fun too, the stand out being Jennifer Lawrence, who proves that what she brought to Winter’s Bone wasn’t a fluke, the girl is destined to be a star, not to say her performance is as strong as Winter’s Bone but the role is not as intense, but we do get a real sense of inner conflict from her performance about where she wants to be in the world. Kevin Bacon seems to be having a ball playing a scenery eating villain, playing both a Nazi who later becomes a tycoon style villain, Bacon pulls both these styles off masterfully, proving to be a worthy foe to both Charles and Erik. It’s a shame to see talented actors like January Jones, Jason Flemyng, Oliver Platt and Ray Wise given very little to do, but at least they have filled out the cast with talent instead of getting any hack to do the job.
This is one of the strongest super hero movies in years; it’s definitely the one that feels the most like a comic book offering fun and action to its audience. The film is a prequel and takes advantage of this to throw in some in jokes for fans, though this never cheapens the film, it reinforces how strongly tied to the first two films X-Men: First Class is. Vaughn has once again shown that comic book movies do not need to be all doom and gloom; instead they can offer great entertainment whilst still getting across a message. After the lacklustre Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the worthwhile but missing something Thor, this is now the new summer blockbuster to beat, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger had better bring their A-game otherwise they’ll be long forgotten in the wake of this resurrected franchise, which is (for lack of a better joke) first class all the way.