The Review: You’d be forgiven for having lost patience with the X-Men saga by now, after the complete mess that The Last Stand and the Wolverine spin-off turned out to be. Blame for that could feasibly be put at the door of two particular individuals: Bryan Singer, who ran away from the franchise to make a bloated, overly reverential Superman movie, and Matthew Vaughn, who stepped in to direct but then got cold feet over the resources he had to work with and disappeared off to make Stardust and then Kick-Ass instead. But obviously the call of the mutant still remained strong for both men, as Singer returns to produce and Vaughn to direct what was described in some quarters as a reboot but is actually positioned as a fairly direct prequel to the original trilogy. Given how poorly treated many of the mutants on both sides were treated by the original trilogy’s final chapter, it’s also a chance to redress the balance for many of the characters.
But if you’re going to go back forty years, then your most immediate challenge is to find someone to fill the younger shoes, and eventually wheelchair, of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Vaughn has turned to two of the hottest up and coming actors, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Avoiding the trap of direct impersonations that so dogged Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, McAvoy and Fassbender instead bring the same ethos and conflict to their pairing, but both with a twist; McAvoy’s Charles Xavier starts out by using his mind control powers to pick up women in the pubs around Oxford, but eventually his sense of responsibility takes over from his more lecherous tendencies, and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr is almost the anti-James Bond, globetrotting in a mission of revenge that has its roots very much in the character’s origins right back at the start of the original movie. Both of the youngsters are up to the challenge, Fassbender very much with the more interesting and shaded role but McAvoy his equal in the more tense moments. Their relationship is the core of the movie, possibly even more so than in the originals, and they both keep you interested and invested every time they’re on screen.
So First Class is the origin story, and in this case it’s the origin of the differing viewpoints of Professor X and Magneto. Given their ages and the timeframe, the rest of the cast is mainly new mutants, although Mystique is slow enough in her ageing to have been around in the Sixties, here portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, and Hank “Beast” McCoy old enough, so Nicholas Hoult picks up the role. While neither rise to the heights of the two leads, both have some great moments and are absolutely right for their characters. Outside of these four leads the other new mutants get very little to do on the good side, but they do at least fare better than the baddies, where only half of them even get speaking roles, with mixed success. Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the head of the Hellfire Club, but January Jones appears to be in a competition of her own making to see how badly she can act and get away with it, as she looks diamond some of the time but acts plastic for the rest of it. The other main role is handed to CIA stooge Rose Byrne, who takes her clothes off to get into the Hellfire Club and then spends most of the rest of the movie earning back her dignity.
Vaughn has also taken the opportunity to populate the rest of the cast with a fantastic array of familiar faces to fans of sci-fi and action genres, with the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise and even Michael Ironside popping up, and giving the whole film a feeling of consistent quality – Jones is pretty much the only weak link in the whole film. There’s also some fantastic connections to earlier films, both in terms of visuals and personnel, but the depth of the acting quality and the reasonable structure would mean little if the story wasn’t up to much. The concept is great, putting the action in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although you’d be advised not to have your brain fully engaged, otherwise some of the silliness of the concepts may become too apparent. But Vaughn keeps the movie going at a cracking lick, with montages and split-screens used sparingly and effectively, and some set-pieces which have a scale which doesn’t feel out of place in the company of the other summer blockbusters. Singer’s hand as producer has achieved something on the fifth film of this franchise which he didn’t achieve on his Superman gig, which is to make a fifth film that can sit comfortably in the company of the first two. It falls short of the outstanding quality of X2, but there’s enough here to make you want to see what Singer, Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman can make of another trip round this universe.
Why see it at the cinema: Vaughn brings a scope and a scale to the whole enterprise that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and after the damage done to the franchise by the last two sloppy instalments, this will reward you if you’re willing to make the trip out.
The Score: 8/10