A rare thing in modern Hollywood cinema – the prequel that adds to a franchise instead of using gimmicky fanbaiting to make a quick buck. X-Men: First Class steps away from the established story and characters from the four existing films to reset the clock back 40 years to tell the story of Professor X and Mageneto – their history, friendship and subsequent rivalry.
The story takes the audience back to revisit Erik’s aka Magneto’s (Fassbender) childhood in an Nazi extermination camp where he first crosses paths with the sadistic Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), and geneticist determined to bring the young boys gift to the surface. This is starkly contrasted with the early years of a privileged Charles (McAvoy) as he befriends a homeless Raven, later Mystique, and attends university. Eventually their paths all cross when they are recruited by the CIA to tackle the nefarious Hellfire Club, lead by Shaw and determined to bring about World War 3.
This latest entry gives the feeling that the franchise has started to grow up. Whilst blood, torture and sex play a larger role, the maturation of the series comes from the layered plot that blends world politics and history with themes of segregation, fear and betrayal all topped off with a thick layer of superhero action. What sounds like a potential failed juggling act (such as Spider-Man 3 or Iron Man 2) is deftly handled by director Matthew Vaughn, feeling ambitious after the success of his last spandex picture, Kick-Ass.
Whilst dominated by action set pieces and political subterfuge, the characters remain the driving point throughout. McAvoy and Fassbender lead a pitch-perfect cast while putting on their own 60’s-era Michael Caine and Sean Connery routine. McAvoy picking up college girls with the line about them having a “really groovy mutation” is worthy of a few laughs, but it’s the emotional weight that they, and the young X-Men, bring to the film that makes it note-worthy. During a cleverly handled training montage (best use of split screen in a long while) we see Charles encouraging Erik to reach his potential – a scene given extra weight when paired with the results seen in previous X-Men pictures.
Stylistically the 60’s decor so clearly inspired by films such as Dr. No and Dr. Strangelove is fantastically presented without getting to cheesy looking (although the cabin of Shaw’s submarine comes close) and it makes for some great sequences. Prior to this, Nightcrawlers’s attack on the White House had been the action highlight of the series, but it never gets the heart racing quite like the scene in which the extremely dapper Hellfire Club attack the CIA Mutant Institute looking for recruits.
This is film that more than makes up for X-Men 3 and Wolverine, and foreshadows the beginning of new great series of superhero exploits.
As a childhood X-Men fan…
***** 5 Stars