rating: 4.5When 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 its 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 Classs 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 (2004s Layer Cake & 2010s 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 60s setting. The plot itself also brings a welcome change to the franchise. The setting of 1960s Cold War America was a very bold move and added unexpected tension in a way you wouldnt 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 hurrys 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, its my favourite superhero film to appear this year. Bring on First Class 2.