DIR: Matthew Vaughn • WRI: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn • PRO: Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer • DOP: John Mathieson • Ed: Eddie Hamilton, Lee Smith • DES: Chris Seagers • Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
The X-Men franchise has seemed to be on its last legs for ages now, but somehow it’s managed to lumber on and has produced a prequel, something all franchises do eventually. The prequel granted James Bond a stay of execution, but it also consigned Star Wars to a slow, painful death. This prequel also brings the X-Men into an emerging sub-genre: the period super-hero movie (see Jonah Hex or the upcoming Captain America). Will it all be enough to restore the ailing series?
We follow the early lives of telepathic mutant James McAvoy (a highly irritating young boy grows up into a slightly less irritating student) and magnetic mutant Michael Fassbender in the 1960s. Fassbender’s story is by far the more exciting as he tracks down the Nazi doctor who experimented on him 20 years ago to exploit his super powers, he’s charismatic, very impressive in the fights, and fits easily into the cynical outsider role played by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in the earlier movies.
Kevin Bacon has a lot of fun as his prey in full-on ’60s Bond-villain mode complete with his hidden lairs and his submarine and his hidden lair inside his submarine (seriously). He has a variety of henchmen, January Jones getting the most screen time as Emma Frost, who wanders around Russia in a mini skirt and a furry hat – coz you know, it’s cold out there. And he has a plan to orchestrate the Cuban missile crisis in order to bring about the end of humanity. It’s all very camp, but that’s no bad thing. The film is at its most enjoyable at these tongue in cheek moments when it plays with its period setting.
It disappoints when it shies away from it. In the original comic the X-Men’s status as mutants was used as an allegory for the civil rights movement. And there are one or two moments where the film goes for similar territory (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gets a brief allusion), but while it forms a background it’s never brought to the fore. The character of Beast (Nicholas Hoult), a self-hating mutant, is well done, although I would have liked to have seen more of him. Darwin (Edi Gathegi), however, as an African American in the mid-sixties might have had a very interesting take on his mutant identity, but sadly no one asks him. The plotting in general can be similarly lazy (characters are dispassionately killed off as hastily as they were introduced) and it suffers a bit from Revenge of the Sith syndrome in the final moments as the writers rush around to put everything back where they found it.
While this might be disappointing it is in no way less than what your average summer blockbuster offers and to be fair on that level it succeeds. It’s all good, fun stuff. The actions scenes work, although the final one is a bit of a Bay of Pigs style flop. It might even be enough to restore the series to health, but will the next movie follow on from X-Men 3 or be a sequel to this one? I’m hoping for the X-Men do Watergate.
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
X-Men: First Class is released on 3rd June 2011