2011 has brought apocalyptic themes, mesmerising young actresses and one of the strongest years of cinema for some time. Amongst all this though another highly delightful and entertaining phenomenon has come to the fore – the worthy sequel. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (though oddly titled) was compelling, profound and charged with life and even Thor and Captain America (for all intents and purposes sequels to the upcoming The Avengers movie) were massively enjoyable and crucially justifiable romps through time and space. Alongside these sits X-Men First Class which, though not as novel as its other comic-book counterparts this year, injects new blood into a loved franchise that had most certainly lost its way in the cinematic woods.
Following on from the quite disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand, which felt more like a prequel to a Wolverine spin-off than a movie in its own right, X-Men: First Class relocates the narrative 40 or so years prior amidst the heightened paranoia and irascible atmosphere of the Cold War; a setting that naturally lends itself to the presence of a mutant third party. It also allows Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn and umpteen writers (including X1 and X2 director Bryan Singer) to play fast and loose with historical fact to suggest that it was mutantkind that both attempted and averted World War III. And this actually works quite well, forging a stylistically and historically distinct entry to this mutant franchise. Locating the ever present shades of grey battle within mutant society here enables Vaughn and co to engineer some palpable and relatable threat – nuclear devastation – rather than merely internal squabbles and deus-ex-machine-all-powerful-chosen-one-mutants as was reverted to in X2 and The Last Stand. It also gives the opportunity for some quite spectacular set pieces off the coast of Cuba.
40 years prior means 40 years younger with the roles of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) assumed with period cool and sixties swagger by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively. It’s a great pairing with a tangible, visual chemistry existing between the two and just an ounce of camp homoerotic posturing. Believable and at times even poignant the FassAvoy bromance develops enough – beyond a somewhat clumsy beginning that really rams home the duality in their origins – throughout the course of the film to add real depth to both characters. The film finds slight fault however beyond these two with the First Class of the title necessitating a whole legion of periphery characters that seem designed solely to shoehorn in connections with the films predecessors. These include Alex Summers/Havok (Scott’s younger brother), Azazal (Nightcrawler’s father) and January Jones’ Emma Frost (impossible to reconcile with her later appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine).
However it does provide opportunities for other genuinely fascinating character stories to be greater elaborated on. For example the criminally underused in the original trilogy Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is given a worthy origin with his suffering the dual poetic irony of having the cure he’d hope normalise his appearance enhance it and being given the nickname Beast while remaining the smartest member of X-Men corps. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) too is given a broader character arc that while garnering a level of empathy is again difficult to reconcile with the original series’ portrayal of her. While these lesser characters create bridges to the later movies one feels X-Men: First Class could have been in less of a hurry to catch up to the characters of the original trilogy. A more pure focus on Magneto’s origins may have worked really well here and given the filmmakers a broader canvas to work with in the sure to be sequels to this engaging prequel.
However despite this distracting plethora of smaller characters this is very much Magneto’s movie and Fassbender’s dark, brooding, simmering – hell, magnetic – persona anchors the film with a truly compelling psychological descent from tortured child to grown terrorist. All the while McAvoy plays the other side of the coin with humorous wit and perceptive optimism. For Xavier the sweet spot for achieving one’s powers is “halfway between serenity and rage” and it’s a direct reference to their opposing natures; Xavier never doing enough to actively champion his kind and Lehnsherr foreseeing the only option ahead to be to act first. The melancholy being that when combined they compromise at exactly a balance between these two poles. But their inevitable conflict with each other dooms both to repeated failure as neither have the capability to harness both qualities. Here Vaughn has allowed our knowledge of the eventual relationship between Xavier and Lehnsherr to amplify the poignancy we feel of the burgeoning bromance that unfolds.
Dazzling and thrilling but light and humorous this is, like the other prequels this year, big blockbuster entertainment with a beating heart and a story driven by character. Comic book villainy (from delectable Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw) and intriguing anti-heroes combine to form the second best X-Men movie made thus far and with news of a sequel on the horizon we can’t wait to see the high-school years!
· Cerebro: The Ultimate Mutant Database; replicates what happens when Charles locates mutants through Cerebro and allows you to learn more about various mutants, connect them to key events, decipher connections between them and much more (additional mutants can be unlocked through BD Live)
· Children of the Atom – Multi-Part Documentary on the X-Men including the following elements: ‘Second Genesis’, ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Transformation’, ‘Suiting Up’, ‘New Frontier: a Dose of Style’, ‘Pulling Off the Impossible’, ‘Sound & Fury’ and ‘Untitled Closing’
· 13 Deleted Scenes
X-Men: First Class is unleashed on Blu-ray & DVD on 31st October