'X-Men: First Class' (dir: Matthew Vaughn, 2011), Cert: 12A
Prequels are usually a bad idea. Trying to adapt a new ‘beginnings’ story to an already established franchise usually ends up being a baggy and dull affair- just look at the ‘Star Wars’ prequels, enough said. However, there have been a few good ones, particularly J.J. Abrams’ brilliant ‘Star Trek’ reboot in 2009 which invited new and old audiences into the franchise; I loved the film and I’m certainly not a ‘Trekkie’. Well now ‘Kick-Ass’ director Matthew Vaughn has had a stab at Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ franchise with ‘X-Men: First Class’; a film that presents the origins of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and a friendship that turned into a bitter rivalry.
Set in 1962, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy); a gifted young man who possesses great intelligence as well as telepathy begins a schooling programme for ‘gifted young people’ who also have superhuman powers. Amongst them is his ‘sister’ Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who is able to shape-shift and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender); a Holocaust survivor who has the ability to control and manipulate metals. He and Xavier team up and lead the students of the academy to stop a global threat between the USA and Russia that is about to ensue, but Lehnsherr has another thing on his mind too – to find Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon); the man responsible for his mother’s murder.
Vaughn famously walked off the set of the franchise’s third picture, ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ in 2006 during its pre-production because he claimed he wasn’t ready for such a large responsibility. But after tackling alternative superheroes in ‘Kick Ass’, which was one of my favourite films of 2010, it seems he has plucked up the courage to return to Marvel with a much stronger understanding of the genre. I think leaving the third film was the best decision he’s ever made as a filmmaker because ‘X-Men: First Class’ is absolutely fantastic.
Rather than bombarding the audience with gallons of CGI or ludicrously over-drawn fight sequences, Vaughn’s mutant picture builds and expands from a balanced and strong emotional core which furthers the action and suspense, as well as furthering character and narrative progression. This isn’t your average superhero movie or summer blockbuster – this is traditional storytelling with brains perfectly mixed with Hollywood brawl. It’s clear that although this film is a big studio project (unlike ‘Kick-Ass’ which was independently funded by MARV) and sports a giant budget of $160 million, Vaughn still hasn’t forgotten his English roots – he’s still the guy who made ‘Layer Cake’ (2004) and he doesn’t shy away from this. Story and character drives everything in cinema and this is perfectly demonstrated in his ‘X-Men’ adventure.
The film’s narrative is embedded in history, particularly Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and yes, before you say it, this does appear in the first movie, but not to the same extent. Political, sociological and racial ideas and histories help to coordinate the film’s direction and actively engage with each individual character. It’s a very ‘grown-up’ narrative for a superhero picture and it’s executed with excellence.
Some have criticised the movie in terms of its appeal to the masses because they feel prior knowledge of the franchise is essential – personally this doesn’t make much sense to me. The film is a prequel – as in before the stories began, hence why every character is introduced as if nobody has ever seen or heard of them before. I imagine the majority of people are aware who Professor X and Magneto are even if they’ve never seen or read ‘X-Men’ before but ‘First Class’ takes the time to establish and introduce every key character.
|Still from 'X-Men: First Class' (dir: Matthew Vaughn, 2011)|
Another brilliant feature in the film is the exposure of a variety of ‘other’ characters from the franchise who haven’t had screen attention before such as Darwin (Edi Gathegi); a young man who can ‘adapt to survive’ which he demonstrates a number of times in the picture with my favourite being the gills he grows after sticking his head in a fish tank. Various other characters who have appeared feature too but obviously in much younger form such as Raven (who later becomes Mystique) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult); the blue-furred and aggressive creature who possesses dynamic strength.
Even though I’ve stated that character and narrative is the key behind this movie’s success, there’s still plenty of action and adventure to enjoy. The climactic battle sequence with the missiles that’s teased in the trailer is mouth-wateringly epic; it bursts onto the screen with furious firepower, gorgeous colour and crashing percussion in the background. Also, if you are equipped with comic book knowledge, there are tons of in-jokes and perks that induce further smiles and aren’t a distraction from the film, or irritating for 'Mr. Smith' who's never even heard of a Marvel comic before.
The performances are knock-out all round; McAvoy is sensational as Xavier – he fizzes with charisma and charm, as well as sensitivity and understanding. Patrick Stewart’s shoes were pretty big to fill but the fabulous Scottish actor has squeezed very comfortable into them. It’s a tremendous and memorable performance. Lawrence is wonderful as Raven and embodies her character brilliantly. To those who don’t know much about her, she becomes Mystique later on, a super-villain in the franchise but Lawrence’s performance shades this and makes the character seem good-willed and honest; a task which seems almost impossible to ‘X-Men’ fans but heck, she convinced me, and I’m a huge fan. Bacon is great as Shaw; he’s a horrid villain with impossible powers. Bacon thrives with nasty characters and he pulls out all the stops here, plus he provides a very impressive German accent which shocked and pleased me further. However, the film’s star is Fassbender. I’d go as far as saying he is one of the best actors working currently – he is consistently brilliant in every picture and has such a diverse range; it’s beautiful to watch. He was the perfect casting choice for Lehnsherr/Magneto; he’s exciting, chilling and ruthless, yet is tormented by his disturbing past and the death of his mother. The sequences of high emotion between Xavier and Lehnsherr are breathtaking – each tear that trickles down Erik’s face is believable and touching. Considering this is a superhero film, to have emotional drama involved is brave, but to present it with such elegance and respectfulness is a grand achievement.
So as you probably can tell, I adored ‘X-Men: First Class’ and I highly doubt any other summer blockbuster will be as engrossing, affecting and intelligent as this. Much like the fantastic ‘Source Code’ earlier in the year, it really does seem to take a Brit to show the Americans how blockbusters are done nowadays and I’m adamant that both of these films will feature in my favourite pictures of the year.
An absolute class act from start to finish – fantastic performances, storytelling and visuals make this picture the most essential prequel ever.
By Chris Haydon