X-Men: First Class

X Men
X Men
What are the odds of a director who walked out of a franchise being welcomed back by the studio to helm a later entry?  Not something many directors have experienced, but perhaps for Matthew Vaughn, making Stardust and Kick-Ass in the interim helped his case.  Let’s face it, movies and comics are where tales of victory against the odds make us all believe our dreams can come true, so take a trip to the cinema with GeekChocolate as the Marvel superheroes make a welcome return to the big screen in epic style.

Who would have thought that the fifth movie in a film series would turn out to be possibly the best entry so far? Picture it, if you will: A new director brought on at almost the last minute, a completely re-written script and the tightest post-production schedule since Robert Rodriguez locked himself in an edit suite without regard for the call of nature and all done in the space of eleven months for a studio notorious for its controlling manner, it might seem that X-Men: First Class was doomed to fail. Well, Matthew Vaughn and company seem to have beaten the odds on that one. X-Men: First Class is pretty much a winner and has restored faith in a film series that seemed to have run out of breath a couple of films ago, proving that with attention paid to character and new stories works better than anything else.

Set in the early 1960’s, we meet a young Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) before most people are aware mutants even exist. Erik is on his own revenge mission to take out the Nazis who murdered his family and Charles is about to finish his doctorate when CIA spy Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) tracks him down, needing his help and expertise in genetic mutation in her hunt for Sebastian Shaw, the mysterious man at the centre of the Hellfire Club and who appears to be encouraging the Cold War on both sides. Since Erik is also hunting Shaw, their paths converge and the makings of a team are born, but Shaw has his own interest in Xavier and his mutant band.

Setting the film in this era is a brave move. A 1960’s set Fantastic Four was proposed a few years ago but the studio pulled the plug, fearing a non-contemporary setting would alienate younger audiences. No fear here. This Silver Age set tale takes the events of the time (namely, the Cuban Missile Crisis) and ties it all up with themes as universal today as they have always been. A lot of fun is had with the setting as well, particularly with Erik’s incredibly Bondesque Nazi hunt and diamond skinned Emma Frost’s penchant for lingerie of the time, but it never goes too far stylistically, avoiding what could fall into parody and successfully keeping the story on track, and that is one of the film’s strongest assets. It verges on being plot heavy, yet strikes a positive balance between the story and the main characters, who strike off each other well, their interaction driving the story forward.

The ensemble cast work well together, and the chemistry between Erik and Charles is the thumping heart of the film; their opposing views and the seeds of Erik’s rage are sown early on, echoing Bryan Singer’s first X-Men. Their friendship is believable and they seem to genuinely enjoy spending time with each other; a short recruitment montage with them is great fun, pushing the 60’s aesthetic and featuring a hilarious cameo that should not be mentioned further. You’ll know when you see it.

The rest of the mutants compete for screen time, but Hank “Beast” McCoy and Raven Darkholme (a future Mystique) step to the fore as the film’s main love story, although perhaps more could have been made of it. The others, mainly Banshee and Havok, have less time but still get to shine a little through dialogue and some battle scenes, and there is a feeling we may get to know these guys better in a future instalment, which is one of the main reasons this all works so well. These characters may be mutants but Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman treat them like human beings, which is where some superhero movies fall flat. Every decision they make is true and believable and their positions at the end of the film seem natural.

The effects work is good but not wonderful, never less than in full service of the story but not detracting; one particular character’s demise has a sense of tragedy in those real life eyes amongst the pixels. These days, when audiences know that pretty much anything can be done onscreen, what’s here fits well with the best VFX work in the series (let’s not mention those cartoon claws from Wolverine), and it is also nice to see some old fashioned flying wirework stunts. There is always a difference knowing that an actor is actually in the scene instead of swinging in front of a green screen, even if some of the shots are a tad quick and the cutting slightly hurried.

Respect is also paid to the first two X-Men films, particularly in the opening sequence which mirrors Singer’s very first scene shot for shot and even reprising the score. While the word “reboot” may be bandied about, it’s clear these events take place in the same universe as X1 and X2, but without slavish adherence to those films.

Memories of the last two films cast away, X-Men: First Class truly lives and breathes on the big screen as a satisfying origin tale. While not perfect, it’s up there with the best of its kind, and Matthew Vaughn’s stated desire to return to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is an enticing prospect.

X-Men: First Class is on general release in the UK now




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