Friday, 10 June 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Here’s how it started.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The X-Men franchise was desperately in need of a shot in the arm after the risible X-Men: The Last Stand and the disappointing Wolverine. Amid rumours of a rushed shoot, a terrible poster campaign featuring the worst crimes of photo-shop, and uninspired trailers, it was easy to forget that it was being brought to us by the makers of Kick Ass and boasted the best cast of any X-Men film.

The Cold War is in full swing. CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) is investigating the Hellfire club, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), which seems bent on starting World War 3. Moira brings in telepath Charles Xavier to recruit and train mutants to fight Shaw. Erik Lensherre (Michael Fassbender) has his own reasons to find Shaw, and joins Charles’ team. However, their friendship is soon tested by their different beliefs.

Well, those who put their faith in Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have been vindicated. X-Men: First Class is a fine example of putting a new spin on a worn out franchise. It’s exceptionally cast, exciting, involving, and most of all entertaining. The Cold War setting allows for increased paranoia and globetrotting in addition to Mad Men-style costumes. Vaughn handles the action well, acquitting himself nicely to a bigger budget and a wider scope. It’s also very much a Vaughn/Goldman film, from the sly humour to the surprising violence. While it doesn’t push the 12A boundaries to quite the same extent as, say, Hanna or Sucker Punch, it’s definitely not for younger kiddies. 

As we’ve mentioned, the cast is great. Kevin Bacon makes a grand return to our screens after what seems like forever with a hammy-yet-menacing turn as Sebastian Shaw. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) make the most of being the best-written of Xavier’s protégés as Mystique and Beast, struggling with their all-too-visible mutations. Mystique’s been peripheral at best in the previous films, and the filmmakers do an excellent job of exploring her journey. Meanwhile, January Jones (Mad Men) is appropriately icy and gorgeous as Emma Frost, Rose Byrne (Insidious) and Oliver Platt (Frost/Nixon) are good value as the CIA spooks, and there are some nicely-judged cameos.

But this is principally a film about Erik and Charles, and it required committed performances from the two leads to make the film work. Happily, McAvoy and Fassbender are on top form. The former gives Charles a boyish arrogance and naïveté, while Fassbender makes Erik utterly driven by revenge but shows the humanity that would lead him to consider a peaceful option.

There are a few problems. Even at 132 minutes it feels rushed, with the reported time constraints fairly obvious. It’s a little too cheesy, with the 60s style slogans fitting with the time period but still jarring. But it’s certainly the best blockbuster to come out so far this summer. Unlike The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it’s a comic book movie. But it’s a comic book movie with a strong plot, a good sense of fun, and stunning performances from its two leads.

Vaughn and Goldman revitalize the franchise, and McAvoy and Fassbender are terrific. More, please.



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