X-Men: First Class
d. Matthew Vaughn / 2011 / USA-UK / 132 mins
Let’s get the good news out of the way first shall we? X-Men: The Last Stand will thankfully not be the X-Men’s actual last stand. That isn’t being said from the perspective of someone who thinks the franchise should necessarily continue, but from one happy that the diabolical third film should not have the last word on the series’ cinematic run. Director Matthew Vaughn has returned the franchise to a far more solid footing with his darker and more assured prequel. The only question now is, where can the story go from here? Short of rebooting the trilogy (as has been done with the upcoming Amazing Spiderman films) it looks like fans of the uncanny mutants will be treated to more prequels in the form of an X-Men: First Class sequel (surely not X-Men: Second Class?) and The Wolverine. First Class may be an entertaining film, ranking amongst Marvel’s better cinematic interpretations, but whether its successors will be able to keep the pace without the strengths of its contemporary, headline characters and whether the series will continue to tread water is a question for another day.
In the here and now (or rather, the 1960s) First Class tells the origin story of the odd-couple relationship between mutants Dr Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) before they grew up to become Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan (sorry, Professor X and Magneto). Fassbender and McAvoy are the stars of the film in every sense possible, the film’s only lagging moments being when neither are present. Vaughn seems aware of this and treats his audience to some fantastic scenes of Magneto and Prof. X’s origins, scenes that occasionally lift the superhero blockbuster to new heights. Fassbender in particular is a marvel on screen and his presence twins costumed shenanigans with cold-war grit and Fleming-style cool with a steely performance.
The film makes good use of a darker tone and more adult themes that its predecessors through restrained violence, nudity and language (one cameo in particular a well timed affront to the censors). Its a pity the same can’t be said for the accents, characters drop in and out of their native languages with little reasoning or logic, undermining the historical and geographical realism that the film teeters upon. The action scenes play second fiddle to some of the film’s moments of more human drama but they are convincing and exciting enough that for some they may justify the films existence in itself. One major quibble would be that of Nicholas Hoult’s prosthetics, doubtlessly meticulously constructed, they still seem unable to satisfactorily recreate the impression of the Beast onto the big-screen. But whilst Hoult’s performance itself is fine, many of the supporting mutants feel less than impressive and are either uninteresting or not given time to engage with their audience properly.
In First Class, Matthew Vaughn has created a film very similar to his previous work, Kick Ass. Both feel like they are taking a step forward for superhero pictures but neither quite manage to escape the traditions and limitations that they so intelligently comment upon and rebel against. Neither do they manage to perfect the genre in ways that films such as Spiderman and The Dark Knight have done. The film’s setting is wasted and apart from a few scenes and visual tropes, is never put to use. The cold war and political relationship between Russia and the US serves as an intriguing backing but the film never attempts to raise parallels between the tensions of both national politics and those of Charles and Erik. With X-Men: First Class, Vaughn misses an opportunity to surmount its parts and tell a story of mutation set in the midst of both the civil rights movement and one of the greatest political stand-off’s the world has ever seen. However, considering what a step up for the series this is it’s difficult to feel too much scorn and it should be said that Vaughn once again manages to touch upon new directions for the genre; its simply a shame that he’s not able to make First Class step into that new territory itself.