Review: X-Men: First Class

Roll back the clock for the X-Men origin extravaganza

Released: June 3
Certificate: 12a
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriter: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 131 mins

What’s Matthew Vaughn’s superpower, do you reckon? Some sort of chimerical ability to make a beautiful, visual feast of a film that leaves its viewer Easter egg empty, or possessor of the much sought-after ability to reinvent staid sub-genres (cockney gangster flicks with Layer Cake, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, or post-modern superheroes with Kick-Ass) for a demanding new era of high expectations and low attention spans?

Perhaps a dose of the former and a touch of the latter, and maybe that’s just what’s required to massage that last little burst of excitement from the empty car battery of enthusiasm that greets the increasingly stale X-Men movie franchise.

Channelling the aesthetics of the Sixties spy thriller, down to the dancing dolly birds and Dr Strangelove war rooms, antagonists plotting global war from the white leather recliners of a submarine that detaches from a yacht in a display of pure Bond excess, X-Men: First Class is having a great deal of fun without entering the Austin Powers-like realm of absolute, irredeemable silliness. The return to the harrowing holocaust scenes which opened 2000’s X-Men results in a The Boys From Brazil style Nazi-hunt, and there’s some brilliant faux-retro effects too; TV serial split-screens during the training sequence, and a kaleidoscope effect for Xavier’s first big display of telepathy. Vaughn has clearly been raiding his Blu-rays and rolling around in cliché.

All creations carry the watermark of their age – and the X-Men are without doubt children of the Sixties, their whole existence a stark metaphor for civil rights and nuclear terror, of enemies within and women’s liberation. But while the Cuban Missile Crisis is never lurking too far off screen, and holds the plot firmly in its rocket fingers, little else is touched on, and few parallels are drawn. Where Iron Man wrung its hands over the defence industry and war in the Middle East, X-Men: First Class contents itself with a single black character, who alludes to problems beyond his membership in Homo Superior, and then promptly gets killed off. Similarly, while Rose Byrne’s FBI agent Moira MacTaggert (no connection to the character beyond the name, fanboys) is threatened with a return to the typing pool, the opportunity to embrace the allegories the whole series was built on way back in 1963 is largely ignored. Mad Men’s January Jones, who does nothing much of anything as Emma Frost, seems as decorative a presence in the cast as her character is in the villain’s retinue. Look, look, it’s the Sixties everyone!

If X-Men: First Class didn’t have to be an X-Men movie, it would be far better off, because it’s in the demands of the canon where this muscular romp starts to atrophy, beyond missed opportunities and into actual weaknesses. In failing to learn from The Last Stand (which he nearly directed, so he really should have been paying attention), there’s a mess of ensemble characters who might as well be dogs in little coats for all the resemblance they bear to their comic-book counterparts, cluttering up valuable screen time with their Glee-like bleating about being special/different (try not to sick on your popcorn when you first hear the phrase “Mutant, and proud!”). There’s some increasingly stodgy dialogue, and ludicrous decisions and plot developments quickly crammed into the last half-hour in a joyless and mechanical attempt to move things from raucous period thriller to some point prior to the first movie – possibly a result of the film’s hectic production schedule. The transition from the narrative open field of the film’s beginnings, where anything seemed game, to the heavily formulaic, traditional X-movie fare of the conclusion where Good Mutants and Bad Mutants face off, and overcome where they previously failed by working as a team, before trading self-righteous, valedictory speeches, is as stark as crossing from West to East Berlin.

The relationship between Xavier (James McAvoy, not doing a Patrick Stewart impression thankfully) and the man who would be Magneto (the craggy Michael Fassbender) is complex and genuine, which only makes the last 30 minutes even more absurd – would you really defend the terrified bigotry of mankind by saying “They were only following orders” to a holocaust survivor? Dude, seriously, are you trying to turn him into a supervillain?

Kevin Bacon’s steely sadist Sebastian Shaw is a delight. Despite occupying full Bond villain territory, complete with his gimmicky, monosyllabic sidekicks, who when lurking in their submarine are slightly reminiscent of the rogues gallery in the 1966 Batman movie – again dogs in little coats using the names of characters from the comic – he’s supremely menacing, conveying power without CGI (although there’s plenty of it), his whole shtick an ominous foreshadowing of Magneto’s own campaign of messianic terror on behalf of mutantkind.

From the yapping huddle of dogs in little coats comes a beautifully understated performance from Skins’ Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy, the sophistication of his insecure genius standing in direct contrast to Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme, whose heavy handed ‘issues’ are on a par with Anna Paquin’s performance in the first X-Men film, and a definite catalyst for a Glee-style song and dance number.

In a year in which Marvel have given us Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger is lurking on the horizon like the silhouette of the flag going up over Iwo Jima, it would be easy for X-Men: First Class to be just another superhero movie, but against the odds it carves out its own little corner of the world, with its own tone and delicious style.

If Matthew Vaughn’s power is of mesmerising illusions, then the fact that he at least made us forget we were hurtling toward such lyrical gems as “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?” and “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” is good enough. That it comes with a real sense of charm, warmth and fun – long since strangers to this particular franchise – is a bonus.