Review: “X-Men: First Class”

Smartly opting to effectively reboot the series after the last two pitiful entries (Last Stand & Wolverine), “X-Men: First Class” not only lives up to its high ambitions but exceeds them. Cleverly scripted, smoothly directed and well-acted, this winning combination has yielded not just the best film in the series, but the best adaptation of a Marvel comic title yet.

It may lack the gloriously rich trappings of Chris Nolan’s Batman saga, and has a few issues in terms of balancing its supporting cast and subplots – faults which become more apparent in the middle and latter stages of the film. Yet it’s a remarkably polished and effective blockbuster which greatly impresses in both its scale, consistency and taste.

This is also not a crowd-pleasing contemporary-minded popcorn film built on set pieces or crudely inserted plot trappings or humor. Instead, the filmmakers have aimed for something much more rewarding, delivering a well-conceived and tightly executed genre film – serious when and where it needs to be, but still with enough moments of natural humour to avoid things becoming too dark or dour.

The story is a solid character drama unfolding against a tale of Cold War espionage and told with workman-like efficiency. The various credited writers, most notably Jane Goldman, Bryan Singer and the film’s director Matthew Vaughn, thoroughly make use of the early 60’s setting not just on the screen but also in the structure and direction.

There’s an enormous number of influences on display from the more obvious Connery-era James Bond films to the more serious touches akin to John Le Carre or Len Deighton’s works. The villain’s scheme seems partly inspired by “You Only Live Twice”, albeit without the secret volcano base. His ultimate goal proves rather thin and poorly reasoned, one of the few fumbles the script makes, but is one not uncommon with the antagonists of films of that era.

Vaughn tones down his usual overly stylised touches to deliver smart old school filmmaking with cleanly shot and well-staged action. From a first act which literally never seems to stop jumping around the globe, to a third act which gives us an entirely alternate take on the events leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, full use is made of the period without ever really pulling the focus away from the characters.

That is where ‘First Class’ excels. There’s far more insight into the various characters here, especially the key ones, than any of the previous films. ‘First Class’ forges interesting new relationship dynamics while simultaneously subverting our expectations of previous ones. While you don’t have to have seen the previous films, if you have it makes the changes made here all the more surprising.

This is seen right at the start with Professor X and Mystique. Much of the opening half hour follows the young Charles and Raven who meet as kids and are portrayed as having grown up together. While she has deeper feelings for him, he thinks of her along the lines of a younger sister. It’s an interesting relationship that the film explores to some extent and one you really want to see more of. The same goes for the Charles and Erik friendship, born out of circumstance and convenience, and one that will ultimately be torn apart by differing ideals.

The warm and game Jennifer Lawrence is easily the best actress of the film, effectively conveying Raven’s insecurities about her appearance yet confident in her abilities. It’s a solid portrayal with a good amount of depth, made more impressive by the fact she’s been saddled with the film’s weakest subplot in which she and ‘Beast’ come to accept themselves. It’s a good enough portrayal that she makes some of the film’s few real dialogue clunkers digestible.

The cheeky but adorable Scottish thesp James McAvoy has a whale of a time as Charles, ditching Patrick Stewart’s pious and wise fatherly figure in favour of a much more grounded and flawed idealist whose life of privilege – both from his wealth and the ability to hide his power – has allowed him to hold onto his preconceptions. From using telepathy to pick up women in bars and occasionally bend others to his will, to arrogance over his belief in the way things should be – even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. He’s the epitome of a naive optimist (complete with mild hypocrisy) and the glue that holds it altogether. McAvoy deserves all the plaudits he will get as it’s not as showy a role as some of the others here.

The one who will become a true star out of this though is fiery and intense Irish sexpot Michael Fassbender. Here, the future Magneto is painted as a haunted and tragic figure, driven purely by revenge against the Nazis who took him from his parents and killed his mother before his eyes in the chilling opening scenes of the film. Fassbender spends the first third of the film in his own separate subplot traveling from Switzerland to Argentina to Miami, coldly executing those escaped Nazis responsible in his quest to find Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). This could frankly be a film in itself, a throw back to Bond’s darker side or the vigilante movies of the 70’s albeit with a more global setting. The PG-13 rating has limited what they can do, but the movie certainly pushes right up against it.

Upon finding Charles, Fassbender keeps the portrayal nicely grounded, such as a training scene with the pair which proves to be one of the strongest emotional points of the film. Erik’s ideals may be more extremist and reactionary, but you understand them considering his background and the anger and pain that drive him. He and McAvoy share an excellent onscreen chemistry, it’s a fascinating friendship that you would love to see further explored and portrayed on screen.

A good half-hour of the last 45 minutes of the film is devoted to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the tension/fight that unfolds there between not just the two hostile military forces, but two mutant forces flying above and swimming below the human conflict. It’s a thrilling extended bit of action, avoiding the last act doldrums of so many origin movies, though it’s mildly let down in the last fifteen minutes.

By that I mean it feels like for the first time since the movie began, the calm confidence behind the camera wavers ever so slightly. As a result the final few actions of certain characters, though understandable, feel rushed in an effort to get the characters to the places they are in Singer’s first film – even though it’s still almost four decades off continuity wise. While it certainly doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the film by any means, it’s hard not to wish that Fox or Vaughn had opted to have had more faith and have left things more like they were during most of the film as it now limits the storytelling opportunities in any potential sequel.

The more obvious issues with the film lie in the middle act. Here is where the focus shifts to include the younger mutants and their training. This has the feeling of treading familiar ground, the scenes here more closely resembling the previous films (especially the first and second) than any other in the film. The supporting cast players aren’t utilised to their best effect with some getting the short end of the stick while others definitely don’t fit the period they’re in, most notably Havoc and Banshee. A scene with the kids showing off their powers is cute but ultimately a little grating.

Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt are good fun as CIA agents who become allies, but disappear all too quickly – Byrne in particular seems to vanish for long periods only to pop again when the writers seem to have remembered she’s still around and needs something to do. Nicholas Hoult as the pre-transfomed Beast is the neebish Q-like science geek who constructs most of the X-Men’s gear. It’s a cute portrayal that certainly gets more screen time than the others, even if he has the dullest of the subplots.

Lucas Till and Zoe Kravitz leave little impression other than looking good, Caleb Landry Jones and Edi Gathegi have more interesting powers but again feel under utilised, same goes for Shaw’s henchmen Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) who are mostly there to use their powers for some inventive kills. Then there’s January Jones as Emma Frost. Her delivery is almost Shakespearean compared to the horrendous perfomance she gave in “Unknown” in which she resembled little more than electro-shocked cattle. Though she looks great in white catsuits, when she is on screen and the focus isn’t on her cleavage she’s almost as stiff as many of the straight guys in the audience will no doubt be.

Last but not least is Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of Shaw, an opportunist and Nazi scientist who reinvented himself as a charming wealthy playboy who uses money and connections to influence things his way. Armed with the ability to absorb and redistribute energy, Bacon has fun playing him up like a gentlemen villain – stylish suits, luxury yachts, and a pleasant demeanour until things don’t go his way. There’s also two quick, but fun and quite clever cameos from earlier film cast members.

The question that many fans have asked is if this is a reboot or a prequel, and the answer is hard to say. The film certainly tries to fit in some elements of the continuity such as the opening, the character dynamics, and both the aforementioned cameos. Yet it blindly ignores others – most notably the inclusion of Emma Frost, who was a teen in ‘Wolverine’, and Moira McTaggart whose appearance would have to be much older in ‘The Last Stand’. The one way I can kind of see it working is to forget the events of the last two films, something I know a lot of X-Men fans would gladly do if they could.

Production design, cinematography and editing in particular are top notch, while Henry Jackman’s orchestral score is suitable and engaging but might have benefitted from a more brassy and John Barry-esque influence to fit the setting. FX work is solid for the most part, perfectly acceptable but never particularly dazzling – probably due to the rushed post-production schedule.

Much like “Batman Begins,” “Casino Royale” and “Star Trek” before it, “X-Men: First Class” will soon be listed as an example of a franchise reboot that works. Coming off two terrible sequels and Matthew Vaughn’s fun but decidedly over-rated “Kick Ass”, the fact that this has come together so well despite intense time pressure and reports of production troubles is a testament to the hard work of all involved.

It’s not without a few issues, and I’m not sure how much love this will get from a mainstream audience. Yet Fox have essentially taken Marvel Studios on at their own game and thoroughly whipped their ass at it, leaving behind what already looks to be one of the best major studio tentpoles of the year. If audiences can embrace the three previous best Marvel films (X2, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2), then I hope they will do the same here. If this is what Vaughn and co. can do with a first film, bring on the sequel right away.