(Our second glowing review of the film)
X-Men: First Class is not a good comic book movie; it’s an outstanding comic book movie. A common criticism of panel to frame adaptations is the infantilising of the material. Theme and character have all too often been sacrificed for sensation, with very few filmmakers understanding that comic books, though part of the iconography of childhood, are in fact sumptuous allegory factories; an alternative literature that uses fantasy as a tool to explore pertinent social questions.
Matthew Vaughn understands this very well. His origin story, arguably the franchise’s strongest, embodies the question on which X-Men pivots, namely reactions to intolerance, in the form of a young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. This, fundamentally, has always been what this series is about, the notion of whether you overpower fear and hatred with more of the same, thereby losing your moral authority, or meet the challenge with understanding and optimism, hoping to effect by example. This, we’re reminded, in a series of vignettes, is not a simple choice, not least because whatever the differentiation from the default norms that make us all, strictly speaking, beige, we’re all human and consequently enslaved to a destabilising and polarising nature.
The film, set in 1962, plots the formation of two groups of Mutants familiar to fans of the series; the brotherhood, a supremacist movement headed by Holocaust survivor, Magneto, intensely realised by Michael Fassbender, and the titular heroes, lead by moderate Oxonian, Professor X, charmingly played by James McAvoy. This dichotomy is created against the backdrop that informed the creation of the comic books; nuclear proliferation, humanity ideologically divided with clear lines of demarcation between the Superpowers, profound and painful social upheaval, particularly in the United States, a country feeling the full weight of the civil rights movement and a world still subordinate to the legacy of the Second World War.
Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie skipped over this in a single cut, so Vaughn’s represents something of a restoration; he starts where Singer started, with an identical Auschwitz prologue, going on to tell the story that arguably should have been told all along.
The result is a movie that wears the trapping of a sixties espionage thriller like a well tailored suit, from cold war skulduggery, to ships that house submarines, to a war averting climax, while carefully teasing out the themes that preoccupy the characters. Consequently the balance between crowd pleasing action and characterisation is a tenfold improvement on Gavin Hood’s perfunctory and listless Wolverine movie, and whisper it quietly, Singer’s originals.
First Class might even be too good for its predecessors’ comfort. An unintended consequence of its sure handed grip on character is the retroactive tarnishing of the original films. Jennifer Lawerence’s Mystique, here given real voice and a conflicted psyche, makes psychological mincemeat of her on screen predecessor (or successor if you wish to be pedantic). In contrast, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is lifeless; a naked, blue woman for teen erections.
Beast, who in a neat allusion to Jekyll and Hyde (Frankenstein also gets a nod), inadvertently brings about his own full and monstrous mutation, is, in the hands of Nicholas Hoult, a vulnerable and timid character, struggling with his identity. Kelsey Grammar’s incarnation is frivolous by comparison. Fans of the series will no doubt see this a long overdue correction but there’s undeniable collateral damage to the original trilogy which will be immediately apparent when, inevitably, someone sits down to watch them in chronological order.
Previous X-Pictures have suffered, when they’ve suffered, from a surfeit of characters but little interest in most, bar the headline acts. First Class fares better, not least because the screenwriting quadruplet of Ashley Miller, Zack Stenz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, are far more adept at integrating the characters’ back stories and using those interactions to construct their outlook. Nothing just happens in this movie; characters are advanced through experience, shaped by events. Inevitably, given such a large cast, some mutants are relegated to supporting roles, but given this is the first of an intended trilogy, there’s no reason to suspect that’s permanent.
There’s no doubt that those sequels deserve to be made. Perfectly paced and laced with good humour, plus a merciful absence of heavy handed allusions to future events, X-Men: First Class is a cerebral, well made blockbuster, anchored by two strong leads and a pulsing score by Henry Jackman; it’s a movie that plies it wares with great confidence and imagination.
WETA, who provide the movie’s often impressive visual effects, the Cuban Missile Climax being a standout, are still no Industrial Light and Magic but they’re catching up fast. Rendered wizardry gives the film plenty of scope and an evocative sense of period. Bond-eque histrionics, sans the misogyny and the racial stereotyping, make for a very sweet confection; a movie that evokes classic cold war thrillers but feels fresh and relevant to a modern audience.
X-Men: First Class opens in the U.K. on June 1st and in the U.S. on June 3rd.