X-Men: First Class
(Matthew Vaughn, 2011, USA)
Partially responsible for the sudden influx of superhero movies brought on at the turn of the noughties, X-Men is a franchise that, despite being the basis of four cinematic outings, has never particularly found its feet. Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2, or X2: X-Men United, is, it can be argued, the most viable and successful adaptation of its source material, joining the likes of Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight as examples of the rarity of superhero movies (and sequels) done right, boasting pacey storytelling with eye-catching action whilst never forgetting its heart and central thematic conflicts. The tension between mutant-human segregation was explored more in-depth compared to its predecessor, a film which, although enjoyable, was too slow for its own good, despite its grand intentions, and hasn’t exactly aged well compared to today’s kinetic approach to the genre. The less said about Brett Ratner’s muddled, ignorant third installment X-Men: The Last Stand and Gavin Hood’s meager misfire X-Men Origins: Wolverine the better.
Matthew Vaughn, director of last years brash genre mashup Kick-Ass takes the reigns of this new entry into the franchise, X-Men: First Class, a prequel set before the action of the first film that charts the origination, and eventual degradation, of the friendship between protagonists Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, in the pre- Professor X and Magneto days. Set during the anxiety-ridden era of a 1960’s America under threat of nuclear war, First Class sees James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender step into the comfortable shoes of Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen respectively, starring in a film that is just as elementary as it’s title, boasting an interesting, but underused, political context and a plethora of hitherto unseen characters that are put to little use, thrown aside just as soon as their ‘abilities’ are exposed. Rushed into production, Vaughn’s film suffers from it’s inability at balancing what it wants to be and what it should be; originally touted as an all-out examination of Lehnsherr’s life from Polish Nazi camp prisoner to confused outsider hunting for redemption, eventually becoming the central villain of the series, the film is, more than anything, an uneven foray into the formation of the X-Men as a band of mutant do-gooders, with an inundated plot that ambles from one scene to the next with no real levity.
Indeed there are shades of said previous concept in the finished product, ably brought to life by an absorbing Fassbender as the metal (and occasionally accent) shifting mutant, but First Class is overly distracted in its attempts at incorporating misplaced elements from the originals and giving voices to supporting characters that are as throwaway as they are unmemorable, existing solely to name check the graphic novels, displaying their powers without making much of an impression. As far as performances go, McAvoy never breaks away from his slightly uninterested demeanor, despite excelling in shrugging off the sternness of Stewart’s previous portrayal, and, on the other hand, franchise newcomer January Jones, though only a bit-player, is a particular highlight, channeling the iciness of her portrayal as Betty Draper in TV’s Mad Men to match the glacial exterior of her diamond encrusted Emma Frost.
Moreover, the Cuban Missile Crisis which serves as an alternate backdrop to the narrative, when it eventually stops introducing new faces, mirrors the nervous relationship between man and mutant found within the comics and lends the film a scarce credibility, yet it is underplayed and only really comes to a head in the closing thirty minutes, embedded within a finale that is more laborious than emotionally grappling. If the filmmakers had stuck to the original plan we would have had a slicker, less hurried film, but it tries to be too many things at once, suffering all the more for it.
As with many a prequel, the script relies heavily on prior knowledge of establishments already made, with more than a few tongue-in-cheek references to the earlier/oncoming films that are helped along by a few efficient in-jokes and one cameo that works brilliantly, and another that is frankly useless. It is the script that lets most of the side down, hindered by clunky, sometimes laughably cheesy dialogue (“Just call me Frankenstein’s monster, in search of his creator”, Erik threatens at one point) and a schizophrenic attitude, forgetting to find the line between goofiness and sincerity which renders most of the character’s shifts in allegiances hollow and unexpected, serving no other reason than to advance the plot. Although Vaughn’s direction is serviceable and assured, he could have done with a lot more time to focus on the more contemplative aspects of a story outweighed by sporadically dazzling, albeit occasionally ropey special effects. Though this fifth outing is easily the most fun in the series, it is far from first class.
- The Dark Knight, 2008. [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Kick-Ass, 2010. [Film] Directed by Matthew Vaughn. UK/USA: Marv Films.
- Mad Men, 2007-present. [TV] Created by Matthew Weiner. USA: Lionsgate Television.
- Spiderman 2, 2004. [Film] Directed by Sam Raimi. USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation.
- X-Men 2, 2003. [Film] Directed by Bryan Singer. USA: Marvel Enterprises.
- X-Men: First Class, 2011. [Film] Directed by Matthew Vaughn. USA: Bad Hat Harry Productions.
- X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006. [Film] Directed by Brett Ratner. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009. [Film] Directed by Gavin Hood. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.