When X-Men Origins: Wolverine hit our screens back in 2009, we all felt the beloved X-Men franchise had taken a horrible turn for the worse. It’s true perhaps the downfall began with X-Men 3: The Last Stand but particularly by The Wolverine the saga was beginning to show it’s age and was no longer feeling very imaginative or as smart as Bryan Singer envisioned when he first translated these cerebral comics for the big screen.
Origins had strayed too far away from what was established before in previous films and the comic book source material. It’s cinematic crimes are too numerous to mention but thankfully with X-Men: First Class’s new setting and prequel approach, the franchise has been give an entire new lease of life and the latest installment may be one of the best in the series.
Singer (director of X-Men 1 & 2) makes a triumphant return to the franchise as producer and story developer, and you can truly feel his touch throughout the entire film as the vitality re-emerges in this universe. Director & co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn (2004’s Layer Cake & 2010’s Kick-Ass) also brings his trademark British crew from Marv Films to the table (who are known for their innovative if not low budget techniques) and with Vaughn’s biggest budget to date (estimated $140-$160 Million) every penny is used to create an awesome 60s fabric from the quality of the films set dressing, costumes, visual & special effects and prosthetics.
First Class picks up with the exact same scene that started Singers X-Men back in 2000. A young Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender) is trapped in a German concentration camp in occupied Poland and crushes a metal gate that separates him from his parents using only his mind. He is witnessed by a Nazi scientist by the name of Klaus Schmidt (aka Sebastian Shaw – Head of the Helfire Club, played by Kevin Bacon) who wishes to tap into his power through the only way he knows, pain. It expands on ideas that have only ever been hinted at and helps justify Erik Lehnsherr’s warped view of humanity. Erik’s transformation from victim to villain could have been done in a one note Anakin Skywalker fashion but would have quickly fallen flat. We follow his journey like a ghostly watcher over his shoulder, knowing what’s ahead of him as he hunts down Schmidt from central Switzerland, to the mountains of Argentina and the shores of Florida, each with their own unique visual aesthetic that helps emphasise the films period and overall scope of the story. We feel empathy for his struggles, we know the downfall is inevitable and looking back on the journey we have just taken only makes the fallout even more heartbreaking.
A satisfying level of contrast is made between Eric and Charles Xavier (aka Professor X, played by James McAvoy) without hitting you over the head with the inevitable fallout. Charles is the polar opposite of Eric in every way, he had a rich and comfortable upbringing and relishes in his mutant powers. The 1960′s backdrop works fantastically with both characters: With Eric we are treated to countless Bond inspired backdrops and scenarios as he hunts down Schmidt with the class and tension of a well made spy thriller, while Charles is a perfect representation of the forward and free thinking, Civil Rights generation that engulfed the 60′s. The X-Men first emerged in comics in 1963 (a year after this film is set), with a lot of these questions and ideals taking centre stage, it’s refreshing to see how much was able to be accomplished and expanded on, simply by looking at the stories original roots. You could even say that once First Class reaches its conclusion, the stage is now set for that very first issue to begin…
The ensemble cast is one of the films strongest elements; James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender simply steal the show, Fassbender especially who puts his everything into this role, physically and emotionally. These two actors embody the characters of Charles & Eric without simply relying on a cheap Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen imitation. Kevin Bacon should also be commended for his cold, calculated and overall bad-ass take on Sebastian Shaw. For the first three films we relied on Magneto as our main villain and Stryder in X2 & Origins. Shaw and the entire Hellfire Club bring a welcome change to the X-Men films and work fantastically with the 60’s setting.
The plot itself also brings a welcome change to the franchise. The setting of 1960’s Cold War America was a very bold move and added unexpected tension in a way you wouldn’t usually expect in a superhero film (outside of Watchmen that is). The visual aesthetics are superb thanks to the masterful work from Vaughn and production designer Chris Seagers. On paper the idea of meshing a superhero film with a Connery James Bond tone, while sprinkling elements of Dr Strangelove style cold war throughout, simply sounds mad but it works shockingly well. The film does a good job of setting up the chess pieces as it were for X-Men 1 & 2 and makes you want to pull out your box set and go through the whole series one more time.
My only real gripe (and it is a small one) was its somewhat rushed ending as it suddenly hurry’s to give every story thread a conclusion over a span of ten minutes. Each conclusion works effectively within the world they have created but they come at such a speed, all at once that it does not allow enough breathing space for each conclusion to have a full impact with the audience.
With it’s throwbacks to the age of 60′s cold war espionage, First Class is one of the most daring reboots/prequels to hit superhero films in recent years and was destined to sink or swim if there was any hope of the franchise continuing. Thankfully the gamble paid off and First Class shows there is far more to this series than simply its Adamantium clawed friend.
This is one of the best X-Men movies to date and one of the best Marvel films made outside of Marvel Studios. Personally, it’s my favourite superhero film to appear this year. Bring on First Class 2.
Throughout production the decision was made to rely more on practical effects and use Visual Effects sparingly, from this First Class isn’t the most CGI heavy spectacle film to hit our screens this summer but when the time comes for effects to take center stage they are done extremely well and at times give the likes of ILM a run for their money. The transfer for First Class is top notch and presented in 2.35:1. Blacks are well balanced, textures do not loose resolution and colour grading truly helps hit home a bright, vibrant 1960’s tone. Overall every decision made, makes for a very crisp package to behold.
Henry Jackman’s score throughout First Class is a true highlight, Jackman has upped his game in every way after his recent score on Kick-Ass and is some of his best work, prime example being Magneto’s theme – a true high for the film. Audio overall is very well mixed and kept at a consistent level in its 5.1 DTS-HD format. Sound effects are crisp, clear and ADR is done mostly to a subtle degree. 7.1 would have been a nice addition however it’s by no means a deal breaker.
EXTRAS & PACKAGE
NOTE: One small problem I found when first trying to watch First Class was it’s visual glitches. If you are watching on a PS3 you may find that every 10-30 seconds the picture freezes (while the audio continues as normal). This is and was a very frustrating glitch. As I hunted online I discovered this is quite a widespread problem for PS3 users. After a quick tinker with the BD Data Files everything began to work normally however, if this is what I have to do every time I want to watch First Class I will not. Be. Amused.
Children of The Atom is Blu-rays big documentary that comes in at just under 1 hour 10 minutes, it’s brutally honest in regards to the problems the franchise and this film encountered throughout all stages of production and celebrates its accomplishments without being too self indulgent. You get a real feeling of how fast and frantic the turn over for this film was and how much the cast and crew were able to accomplish in just over a year from beginning to end. The documentary is broken up into eight parts and cover everything form the forming of the creative team, casting, design work for Beast, costume work (which actually give a very viable reason for all costume designs and especially translating the yellow suits from comics to film), dressing a 1960’s period, visual effects and scoring the film. When I first started watching it felt like a bog standard, run of the mill documentary but then you begin to feel the level of passion and collaboration from the entire crew throughout this project. It’s rare I re-watch behind the scenes documentaries anymore but I can see this easily being something I return to in the near future.
Also included is a collection of 13 deleted scenes, some are passable, a majority of the scenes take place as the team train and understand their abilities at the mansion which is always a joy to see. Overall there is a good selection of scenes that are a real shame to have been cut (come on Fox, the people demand to see more of Magneto in a dress!).
A unique feature called Cerebo: Interactive Mutant Tracker, is included which is in fairness, simply a collection of character montages and bio’s from all of the X-Films so far. It’s not the most interesting feature for hardcore fan’s as it simply recycles old footage and holds no new information for anyone who has Wikipedia at their fingertips. This is defiantly a feature for the younger members of the family.
The set also includes a copy of the Composers Isolated Score that can be played throughout the film as well as a DVD and digital copy of the movie.
Extras are for the most part satisfying and insightful, however the whole package screams for an audio commentary, which is sadly absent.
The best superhero film this year has hit our doorsteps with a visual and audio polish. Even with some bumpy moments from the extras and the disc itself, this is still a must own for superhero fan’s everywhere and worth every penny.
X-Men First Class is available to buy in the UK from today on DVD & Triple Play Blu-Ray.
This article was first posted on October 31, 2011