Little over a decade ago, Spiderman, Superman and Batman were the main big comic book characters that most people were aware of, to a large extent because of previous TV and movie incarnations. As much as I am not a big comic book fan, I was aware of other lesser known comics including the X-Men series. I remember when I was younger picking up an edition of Wolverine, a spin-off series following the lone X-Man, who had an almost magical ability to instantaneously recover from any injuries, and who had metal claws that protruded from his fists, what kid wouldn’t love that?
In 2000 Bryan Singer made the first X-Men movie, set in a world where people could manipulate other peoples thoughts, the elements, and even the fabric of reality at will, with a group of mutants led by a powerful psychic called Professor Charles Xavier (a.k.a. Professor X). The movie was loaded with special effects but with a story that was grounded by a subtext of racism and discrimination using mutation as an analogy.
Singer returned to helm the sequel X2, which was regarded as a great success by both comic book fans and non-fans alike, but due to scheduling conflicts was replaced by Brett Ratner for X-Men: The Last Stand, which in the eyes of many comic book fans was inferior and to some a slap in the face, and most recently Gavin Hood directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was a box office success but considered a disappointment by many.
Plans were put into motion to make another X-Men Origins movie, this time focusing on the villain of the first movies, Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto), a survivor of the Nazi holocaust who had the ability to manipulate metal and magnetic fields. Production on the movie stalled, with Singer looking to return but scripting delays meaning he moved on to other projects. The project was shelved in production hell for a time and ultimately retooled as X-Men: First Class, with Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn taking the reigns.
There may be slight spoilers, but I have tried to keep them to a minimum.
Being a prequel, First Class takes place primarily in the 1960’s following the earlier days of Erik, played by Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, Centurion) and Charles, played by James McAvoy (The Last King Of Scotland, Wanted), before they were enemies as they work together to thwart the evil, maniacal plans of another mutant, Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon (Apollo 13, Hollow Man).
The movie feels in many ways like a classic Bond movie (I would suggest Vaughn for the next Bond movie after Sam Mendes) especially for the first half where you have the separate storylines following Erik, Charles and Shaw. Erik – out for revenge on Shaw, the man who tortured him as a child and killed his mother, using his abilities (quite graphically) to track him through his Nazi contacts, Charles – being approached by the CIA as an expert on genetics, using his abilities to help them find Shaw, and finally Shaw – manipulating American and Russian governments in his goal to start a nuclear world war culminating in the events of the Cuban missile crisis. These elements of the story in particular are unusual for an X-Men movie as they are quite heavily steeped in politics, but successfully shifts the movie away from just being a typical popcorn action movie.
As with the previous X-Men movies, there are quite a few characters included, fans will recognise most of those drawn upon from the comics, including Emma Frost, Mystique, Havok, Banshee, Beast, Tempest, Riptide, Azazel, Darwin and Moira MacTaggert, though some of them have been re-purposed to fit the movie, the majority of them stay true to their comic book characters but because of the sheer number of characters crammed in to a two hour movie, some get more screen time than others, and I’m pretty sure that one of the bad guy ‘henchmen’ in particular, whilst getting a few good scenes to show off their powers, has no actual lines of dialogue in the movie. Even Ray Park got lines in his role of Toad in the first X-Men movie. There are even a couple of lines mentioning references to another X-Men movie and one quick yet particularly humorous cameo that got the biggest laugh from the audience in the screen that I was viewing. I particularly loved that they kept the true nature of Beast’s mutation faithful to his comic counterpart, and was also impressed by a visual cameo regarding the character of Mystique, which was a nice touch.
The leads of Fassbender and McAvoy are perfectly cast in their respective roles, being largely about these two characters and their friendship is something that emotionally undertones the movie very well. Fassbender plays the anger that Erik has been riding on since his childhood very close to the surface at times and brings this across well, while McAvoy, particularly in the scenes with the two of them, is believable as perhaps the only other person who could understand his pain (at their first meeting, a single line ‘I know what this means to you’ makes perfect sense as he has to say it to him telepathically) while at the same time not being able to justify the same action and course that Erik has ultimately chosen to pursue
Kevin Bacon is convincingly evil as Shaw in his scenes, but with enough conviction to avoid becoming just another typical villain. The rest of the cast also give convincing performances but as previously mentioned some get less screen time and are less developed as a result. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult stand out as Raven/Mystique and Hank McCoy/Beast, both of their struggles with their mutant identities are nicely handled and their performances are strong throughout.
The movie speeds along, cramming in all those characters and a fair amount of story and action in it’s 132 minute running time without ever slowing enough to bore or going too fast to lose the audience. Even dialogue heavy scenes, particularly some of the Russian spoken scenes with subtitles, which shouldn’t really work in an X-Men movie, deliver plot points without slowing down the narrative, and intentionally or not, also add a feel of events occurring during the cold war. There are also some very nice visual touches along the way, Azazel’s teleporting attack on a CIA base is nicely handled without over relying on slow-motion, and I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen telepathy shown so brilliantly in a visual way to actually making it exciting during an action sequence.
I do have a few reservations about the tone of the movie, as it is very dark for a PG-13/12A rated movie, there are quite a few graphically violent deaths on screen, particularly for some of the earlier scenes with Erik pursuing the trail to find Shaw. Most of these have been trimmed or filmed in a way to be more suggestive than shown on screen, thankfully no cuts were made to the movie to get it’s rating (a big issue with me) but the tension in some of those scenes may be found to be a little disturbing for younger viewers, particularly the opening scene with Schmidt and a young Erik where he is forced under the threat of his mother’s death to move a coin with his abilities.
Overall I would say this is better than the first movie, (way) better than Last Stand or Origins: Wolverine, and on par with the second movie, perhaps even better (I shall have to decide that upon further viewings). 20th Century Fox apparently are considering this the first in a new trilogy of X-Men movies, I for one welcome that, provided they can deliver at this kind of level.