X-Men First Class (2011) – out now on Blu-ray and DVD
Apparently, X-Men: First Class (easily my favourite of the X-movies) is out on “home ent” this week, so here’s a review I did earlier…
X-Men: First Class
(Matthew Vaughn, US, 2011)
A franchise that had lost its initial charm mutates once more: into a potent blend of retro-adventure and thoughtful character study
In comic books, the X-Men are the gift that keeps giving: a mutation of infinite variety with its revolving cast and periodic reboots. Five (count ’em) movies within a decade testifies to the strength of the central concept, but X-Men: First Class is the first to treat its rich seam of political allegory as actual socio-political history. Stan Lee always saw Professor X and Magneto as avatars for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and this film takes the characters back to their 1960s roots.
In doing so, something that might easily have been crass and tasteless – co-opting the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis as character backdrop and plot device, respectively – yokes the superheroes to real-life in the way that the film of Watchmen tried and failed to do. Characters have believable rationale and make understandable decisions, because we know that many during those years of mistrust and suspicion felt the same way. The film smartly evokes specific cultural genres of the time to highlight where it’s coming from – Sebastian Shaw is a Bond villain by way of The Avengers, while Eric ‘Magneto’ Lensherr’s Nazi hunt is straight out of the pages of Frederic Forsyth’s globe-trotting thriller The Odessa File.
This makes the film a natural successor to Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, another ‘what if?’ imaging the day-to-day business of superheroes. Vaughn is uncommonly interested in saving the world not as a mythic quest but as a lifestyle choice and career option, and he takes as much time on recruitment and training as on the explosions… although, of course, here the mutants’ education includes explosions. That means the title is well-earned, putting characters through their paces so that we understand them. Sure, in a big cast some get lost by the wayside, especially on the villains’ side (Jason Flemyng’s Azazel is particularly daft), but future X-leaders Charles Xavier and Lesharr get plenty of meaty debate, while Mystique is much improved on the one-joke character in the Singer films. Here, as played by the superb Jennifer Lawrence, she’s as much an intellectual shape-shifter as a physical one, caught between two warring worldviews.
Vaughn has a producer’s eye for casting, opting for up-and-comers (he bagged Lawrence before her Oscar nomination), small-screen stars like Rose Byrne and January Jones, and perennially underrated veteran Kevin Bacon. But he has developed a director’s taste for subtlety, nowhere more so than in the performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Both are informed by their older screen selves – especially Fassbender’s uncanny capturing of Ian McKellen’s steely superiority – but neither actor is yoked to karaoke in the way that, say, Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi was. The actors are allowed to spark off each other, and their warily respectful partnership, a mismatched bromance, is ably conveyed.
Refreshingly, Vaughn isn’t unduly bothered about the thrills – presumably, he got his fix during Kick-Ass (although it’s worth remembering that a planned fight in a revolving corridor was axed the day Vaughn saw Inception). What’s left is unlikely to compete for spectacle with, say, the Bayhem that the new Transformers wrought…yet this is a good thing. The film’s best set-pieces are evocative because of their focus on character: Lensherr’s using his burgeoning powers for vengeance; an assault on the X-Men’s training facility (rivalling the one in X2) that highlights how unschooled the youngsters are. Even the boat-sinking chaos of the finale comes second to an old-school stand-off between Xavier and Lensherr on the beach. For once, you’ll leave a blockbuster talking about the dialogue scenes.