Like many established franchises, the studio bigwigs decided the most appropriate route to take with X-Men was to produce an origins story of our favourite mutants. Looking over past successes (Batman Begins) and past failures (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), it seems that this decision can be a true make or break, and luckily for X-Men: First Class, the studio hired the duo responsible for the awesome Kick-Ass adaptation, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughan.
As a predecessor of the trilogy before it, First Class sees the mutants and youngsters in the swinging sixties, yet forgets to really capture the times, instead believing that having a set piece where the X-Men save the day from a possible nuclear outbreak between the US and Russia is enough to convey the Red Scare and thus sum up the times. Whatever happened with the hippy movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis (touched upon), the assassination of Kennedy, the Human Rights Movement (surely relevant in a film about social outcasts!) and Vietnam War; all taking place or looming in the very near future. Focussing on the divide between Russia and the US screams of lazy writing, yet the fun factor prevents First Class from becoming a preachy or inaccurate history lesson, as it never claims to be in the first place. X-Men: First Class never allows the viewer to question the lack of substance at the time of watching, but instead it ponders hours after viewing (as does the irritating side-plot of Mystique’s identity crisis – perhaps seeing her attend a human rights march - how controversial for a mutant! - or weaving a plotline into that subject matter would’ve been more effective and interesting).
Seeing the rise of the mutant empire and how the good/evil divide came about between Erik and Charles is well executed, even if a little neat in places. The end of the film ties off most of the loose ends and bridges the gap with the first X-Men film, forgetting that about the 30 years or so that pass between the two – allowing for development to occur in that missing time, even if off-screen.
This time around we have the X-regulars like Mystique, Professor X, and Magneto, as well as one-timer Beast, along with a plethora of new characters such as Emma Frost, Havok, Azazel (Nightcrawler's father), Angel, Riptide, Darwin, Banshee and Sebastien Shaw (Kevin Bacon in usual baddie-mode). The casting choices for the main bulk are good (although Nicholas Hoult as Beast is a little questionable), but for the two leads they are excellent, displaying very similar qualities to their older selves – portrayed by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. James McAvoy nails the quintessential British gent perfectly and saw him portray Charles Xavier/Professor X with the intelligence and suave the character so embodies, especially when seeing him use genetics to chat-up women in mahogany Oxford bars. Fassbender as Erik/Magneto is the highlight in the film – so well portrayed by the Irish-German actor that he truly eclipses the rest of the cast. Fassbender also gets the meatiest thread in the plot as he goes looking for revenge on the Nazis who escaped scot-free from their part in the second World War. Erik is a hybrid of James Bond and Rick Blaine as he strolls through the countryside in search of those responsible for the concentration camps where he lost his family (and where he also discovered and honed his powers). The single best scene sees him manipulate nefarious objects around him as he confronts some past foes in a wooden Argentine bar. This thread also sees Erik exercise his powers in the most painful of ways – think tooth fillings!!
All in all X-Men: First Class avoided becoming the mishap so easily conveyed by other origin tales, and with a fantastic leading duo and some spectacular special effects, this latest mutant outing gives the much needed dose of X which was hardly sated by Wolverine; and speaking of the clawed hero, his three-second cameo is worth the entry price alone. The plot holes are momentarily puzzling - Beast seems to think that by healing himself of his beast-feet will still enable him to run fast!!? - they are quickly dissolved by the fun that follows. Vaughan and Goldman are definitely onto something, and their efforts here, although more mature than Kick-Ass (but lacking in consistency) are still far from the perfection of Nolan’s Bat-Universe. However, for sheer entertainment their latest effort can certainlybe credited with being eye-candy and something dynamic amongst some of the more slow-burning entries in cinemas of late. Bryan Singer can breathe a sigh of relief.