I’m sure I’m not the only X-Men fan that laments Bryan Singer choosing to vacate the director’s chair after the second film. After he left, we then got the admittedly enjoyable but completely forgettable and rather sloppy X-Men: The Last Stand, under the direction of Brett “Rush Hour” Ratner.
However, things then looked up when we heard there was going to be a prequel focusing specifically on the most famous and one of the most popular members of the team, Wolverine. Sadly though even under the direction of the talented Gavin Hood (director of the Oscar-winning Tsotsi and the underrated Rendition), the film failed to bring the franchise back from where the third film had taken it and at that point it looked like there was no hope left for the franchise to get back up to the level it had previously achieved.
Step in X-Men: First Class. What seemed like a project fated for mediocrity at the very best has turned out to be arguably the best installment of the franchise so far, a grand, exciting, handsomely made film that does everything right which the two previous films in the series did so very wrong.
First Class goes where a lot of fans of the franchise have been wanting it to go every since that very first scene of the first film showing a young Magneto in a concentration camp, bending and buckling the metal gate as his mother gets dragged away by the Nazis. In the first film it jumped forward to the already on-going disagreement between Professor X and Magneto, but after opening with that scene once again First Class stays in that time and delves into what exactly happened between Charles Xavier and his former friend Erik Lehnsherr.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play Charles and Erik, respectively, and both do an excellent job of completely inhabiting these iconic characters. Although McAvoy looks very little like the future Professor X, Patrick Stewart, he gets the calmness and spirit of him down just right. Fassbender, on the other hand, not only embodies Magneto but he does look believable as a younger Ian McKellen. It may seem trivial that the past incarnations of characters be believable and that they will actually turn out as we know them from previous films, but it’s just as essential a thing to get right as the display and utilizations of the mutant powers which are so integral to the series’ mythology.
Speaking of which, First Class has both a wide array of powers upon which for us to feast our eyes (with the aid of top-notch CGI, of course), but also, and perhaps more importantly, the right combination of power-filled mutants. Each brings something different to the table, sure, but in the context of the story they complement each other well. It doesn’t exactly hurt that the casting is excellent, allowing for fun chemistry between pretty much all of the First Class team. Pretty much all the mutants are great, but notable highlights include Jason Flemyng as Azazel (who is pretty much a red version of Nightcrawler from the second film); Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee (who has the power to scream at high frequency, essentially allowing him to fly); Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique (my personal favourite mutant of them all); and an Kevin Bacon as a surprisingly formidable and impressive bad guy, Sebastian Shaw (I won’t ruin what exactly his power is). The film does a great job of both showcasing all of these varied powers without being overly showy or campy about it, a crime both the third X-Men and the Wolverine prequel were guilty of on several occasions.
Matthew Vaughn is in the director’s chair this time around (he also almost directed the third movie before Ratner stepped in), and after proving he can send up the superhero film with his absolutely fantastic Kick-Ass last year, he puts on his serious hat and delivers a no-nonsense, no gimmicks X-Men film that has a brilliant sense of both momentum and anticipation about it, the latter of which is because if you’re a fan of the franchise you are waiting on certain things being name-checked or given a tip of the hat to (including a pleasing cameo by a certain well known mutant), or even extremely crucial events occurring that will affect how we end up as we started in the first film.
One such event is the reveal of how exactly Professor X ended up in that famous wheelchair, and without giving anything away, it is both surprising and fitting in that sort of “yeah, that makes sense” sort of way. Vaughn, alongside co-writers Jane Goldman (his regular writing partner who co-wrote both Kick-Ass and Stardust with him), Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz (the latter two of which are writers on such TV shows as Fringe and The Sarah Connor Chronicles) clearly understand that while this is its own film it still needs to feel part of the franchise overall and they succeed admirably in that endeavour.
The film’s plot, set in the early ‘60s, involves Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw trying to manipulate both the US and Russia into nuclear war. And although this is an absolutely fine overall plot in which to contain all the mutant goings-on which are ultimately the point of the franchise as a whole, the film’s tone and sensibilities work less when the plot is focused almost solely on this aspect. And it’s this which holds First Class back the most. But even with that being detrimental to the narrative, it doesn’t in any way cripple it and, in fact, the conclusion of the nuclear war plot and how it ties into everything else is rather inspired.
X-Men: First Class is as close to, well, first class as you’re likely to get from this franchise, with Vaughn’s assured direction and a well written script bringing the franchise back to its former glory first achieved when Singer was at the helm. Though there’s a peculiarity and playfulness somewhat lacking here which was prevalent in at least the first two X-Men films, First Class more than makes up for that with its terrific performances (particularly from McAvoy and Fassbender), well constructed set-pieces and overall sense that it takes itself seriously, keeping the things moving forward without lagging and allowing the 2-plus hour runtime to whizz by. The slick look and exotic worldwide locations also give the film more of a classy James Bond feel than your average superhero movie, helping it stand out among the ever growing crowd.
Vaughn has certainly done enough to wash away the bad taste of the last two films which, while fun in their own ways, didn’t do the franchise justice. First Class thankfully does.