X-MEN: FIRST CLASS Film Review
Talkin’ ’bout an evolution
OUT NOW! 12A * 131 mins
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence
Imagine Matthew Vaughn as some cinematic geneticist, manfully resisting the call of his supermodel wife as he toils late in the lab. Not now, Claudia. Not now.
He knows that the X-gene is facing extinction. It must adapt or die. How to save it? Perhaps a splice on a cellular level. A droplet of vintage Bond DNA, a molecule of Mad Men cool, fused with the vibrant, adrenalised spin on superheroics he injected into Kick-Ass. Vaughn peers into the electron microscope, blinking the sting of sweat from his eyes as he watches this unholy hybrid take form. It’s a desperate, perilous gamble. But it could just work…
More than a prequel, more than a reboot, X-Men: First Class is, fittingly, a mutation. And a successful one at that. Hurling Marvel’s Homo Superior home to their Cold War roots, it retools and re-energises this flatlining franchise, finally halting the artistic slide incurred by Brett Ratner’s crushingly humdrum X3.
James McAvoy is the young Charles Xavier. His legs work, and so does his hair. All blue-eyed boyish twinkle, it’s a feyer, flirtier performance than Patrick Stewart’s wheelchair-bound patriarch. When we meet him he’s using his knowledge of biology as a student bar seduction tool. McAvoy’s weapons-grade charm even sells you on the future Professor X uttering the word “groovy”.
Xavier is drafted by the CIA to head up their clandestine mutant ops division. On his first mission he encounters Michael Fassbender’s Eric Lehnsherr, Holocaust survivor turned dapper Nazi hunter and future Magneto. “I thought I was alone,” says Eric, discovering he’s not the only mutant in the game. It’s the bromantic bond between the two that gives the movie its emotional trajectory, charting a friendship that ultimately decays into enmity as each man chooses his place in the world.
While Vaughn gets to play with two key icons of the X-flicks, he merrily cherrypicks from later iterations of the comic book. Purists may be affronted by the selection process – there’s no place for the authentic Lee and Kirby line-up of Cyclops, Iceman and Jean Grey, already team players in the Bryan Singer movies. Angel’s present, but swaps gender. Beast is introduced in faithful early big-footed form but switches to his rather more familiar blue-furred incarnation (Skins star Nicholas Hoult gives one of the stand-out performances here; sweet, intense, wounded). There’s a faint whiff of the subs bench about the rest: second generation X-Man Banshee is brought to the screen as a teen (there’s a smart use of his sonic power to create makeshift sonar) while Havok loses his striking monochrome costume and consequently much of his appeal.
It’s the most dizzyingly international entry in the X-Men saga. There’s a restless, atlas-hopping vibe that recalls the jet-age travel-porn appeal of the Connery Bonds. We’re whisked from Geneva to Argentina, Moscow to Miami, with detours to the shimmering neon fantasia of Rat Pack era Vegas and the stately spires of Oxford. Such globe-spinning lends the movie energy and momentum.
Elsewhere the screen thrums with retrolicious cool, from the swinging wardrobe choices of Emma Frost, togged up like the ultimate trophy wife of a Rolling Stone, to the classic spy caper licks that punctuate Henry Jackman’s soundtrack. The production design is pure pop-cultural candy: there’s a loving nod to Strangelove’s war room while the sanctum of the Hellfire Club drips with chintzy decadence like a nefarious Playboy mansion. Vaughn reclaims the pure joy of ‘60s spy-chic from the smirksome clutches of Austin Powers – at one point a secret escape-sub emerges from the hull of a boat, Thunderball-style. It feels glorious.
Kevin Bacon brings a mix of steel and louche charm to the villainous Sebastian Shaw but it’s a thin, confusing character he’s saddled with. There’s a disconnect between the Josef Mengele figure we meet in a Nazi death camp and the purring playboy mastermind we encounter in the ‘60s. How did this reinvention occur? We’re never told, and the film is weaker for it. Bolting this Holocaust era backstory onto the original comic book character feels like pat screenwriting, simply there to allow Magneto a neat arc of vengeance. Aside from the trad supervillain aim of kickstarting WWIII, there’s something nebulous about Shaw’s goals. Ultimately there’s little to differentiate his brand of mutant evangelism from Magneto’s ambitions in the previous movies.
First Class becomes baggier as it goes on, surrendering its earlier lightness of touch to something a little more predictable. Some training sequences feel particularly perfunctory. But it rallies for a final reel face-off as the mutants suit up in blue and yellow and engage the very epicentre of the Cuban missile crisis. Vaughn dials up the spectacle for this widescreen climax, plucking a submarine from the waves and hurling it to shore as the X-Men’s fighter jet evades the combined firepower of a naval armada.
Topped with some sly in-jokes and an outrageously crowdpleasing cameo or two, X-Men: First Class emerges as a fine, muscular resurrection of the mutant franchise, loaded with charm and cool. The gene survives. The Children of the Atom are reborn. Nick Setchfield