The X-Men have been on shaky ground for a while now; the cinematic universe Bryan Singer so carefully established was brought into ridiculous disrepute by notorious hack Brett ‘Rush Hour’ Ratner with ‘The Last Stand’ (Vinnie Jones in a rubber muscle suit and phallic mushroom helmet was never gonna fly with the fanboys), while Hugh Jackman managed to undo much of the hard-won goodwill his interpretation of Wolverine garnered with the clawed avenger’s shambolic ‘Origins’ story. Now that Darren Aronofsky has unceremoniously but perhaps understandably dropped out of Jackman’s planned sequel, all eyes are on ‘Kick Ass’ director Matthew Vaughn’s swinging 60’s prequel, focusing on the mutant dawn spearheaded by future enemies Professor X and Magneto.
Pleasingly, we start in exactly the same place as we did over ten years ago with the first X-Men film: the Nazi concentration camps of 1944. Singer’s opening scene is replayed to establish a new villain; Kevin Bacon’s dastardly Sebastian Shaw, whose initial encounter with a supernaturally gifted Jewish child sets a chain of revenge-fuelled events in motion. As a young man, Erik Lehnsherr finds himself bonding with well-to-do toff Charles Xavier, on a voyage of discovery for mutants everywhere that leads to a crusade for equal rights and a deadly opposition to the human race. As more mutants come together, it becomes increasingly clear that two camps are forming, and the war brewing might be between themselves as well as with everyone else.
Any reboot has to balance recasting recognised roles with fresh but appropriate faces while also ushering in the new without messing up the mix. While it’s great to see the returning characters faithfully recreated in younger form, some of their new compatriots are just too bizarre – Banshee’s scream-flight is laughable, while the pretty/vacant January Jones’ crystal-skinned fembot comes off as nothing more than an impressive visual effect – while others are so over-powered that they seem invincible, making their battles somewhat uninvolving.
Azazel’s teleporting gift in particular marks him out as so vastly superior to everyone else that his subservience to Shaw seems hard to swallow. The A-Team-echoing score and patchy make-up are also somewhat frustrating; Jennifer Lawrence is a little too full-of-face to pull off Mystique’s reptilian slinkiness, and Nicholas Hoult’s eventual transformation into Beast is made unintentionally hilarious by his blue-rinse Wolfman look (at least they left his unveiling until the climax, a whole film of him could have been cringeworthy).
There are also plot-holes big enough to fly the X-plane through; OK, this is fantasy, but Singer’s finely crafted sense of this world being rooted in reality is jeopardised by various credulity-stretching story elements. This problem is compounded by the slightly half-hearted attempt to work the Cuban missile crisis into the X-mythos: much of the political background is window-dressing compared to the subtext that already exists with these characters. Rose Byrne’s role as Professor X’s human ally Moira MacTaggart is also somewhat under-baked, and as usual there are far too many supporting characters for many of them to register with viewers. This is a shame given that the performers are mostly very appealing; this being the first instalment in a franchise reboot, they’ll hopefully get more chance to shine in the future.
But this is really all about Magneto’s descent into villainy, offering several darkly satisfying moments that raise this above the average comic book adaptation. Despite increasingly frequent lapses into his native Oirish brogue, Fassbender fully embodies the steely charisma of the character, investing his internal conflict with tangible passion and emotion. He is well matched by Bacon, camping it up in a variety of languages but still managing to exude lethal charm and menace, even when he’s strutting around in the ill-fitting headgear that fatefully belongs to Magneto. McAvoy is also a surprising pleasure, conveying both the young Professor’s worthiness and, refreshingly, his more human qualities of cockiness and geekiness. Elsewhere. Lawrence makes a good impression as Mystique despite not quite pulling off the role visually, and Hoult makes for a hugely sympathetic Hank McCoy; their to-and-fro romance is one of the film’s strongest dramatic threads, despite being something we’ve seen countless times before.
Overall, Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman have made a solid and respectable summer blockbuster that gets the X-Men back on cinematic track. The pace is well-maintained for the whole two hours, despite most of the action being pretty much familiar territory. While none of the events are quite as spectacular as what has gone before – there’s a vague cheapness to it all, compounded by the Austin Powers aspect that’s perhaps unavoidable given the period setting – the film strikes a nice balance between humour, pathos and intensity, emerging as a worthwhile addition to the superhero canon.
For more information visit the official X-Men: First Class website.