X-Men: First Class (2011)
June 1, 2011 2 Comments
Desperate to avenge his mother by killing the man responsible for her death, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) travels the globe dispatching the Nazis who had served under Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the concentration camps of his youth. In England, meanwhile, Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is recruited by the CIA to help avert a nuclear war. Travelling to America with operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier soon encounters Lehnsherr and Shaw, founding the X-Men with the former after saving his life in the field. Where Charles teaches his new charges tolerance and humility, however, Eric believes that they shouldn’t have to hide themselves from humanity, that they are the next stage in human evolution and should take their rightful place in the natural hierarchy. When events result in a stand-off between the U.S. and Russian naval fleets, our small group of mutant heroes must put their differences aside if they are to defeat Shaw and avert war.
I must admit to taking my seat in the auditorium with a small degree of trepidation, what with all the early chatter regarding retcons and cameos, I feared a film which jeopardised established cannon in the blind pursuit of narrative freedom; the excellence of the first two instalments (and the adequacy of the third) being somehow undermined by a nifty new beginning where Charles Xavier says “groovy” and the sun inexplicably rotates the Earth. I needn’t have worried, however, with X-Men: First Class proving far less revisionist than director Matthew Vaughn might have had you believe. While he may take a few liberties with the extant franchise, they are – and this is where X-Men Origins: Wolverine went catastrophically wrong – for the good of the story.
Having successfully deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, it is interesting to see how Vaughn handles his superpowers. Reconstructing the opening scene from Bryan Singer’s first movie, Vaughn and screenwriter extraordinaire Jane Goldman have endeavoured to tell an X-Men origins story of their own, albeit one that beautifully marries the 1960s setting with an expanding array of new and returning mutants, successfully imbuing the story with a freshness not felt since we were last introduced to Professor X and his merry band of mutants. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make the characters their own – no mean feat considering the talent which preceded (or is it superseded?) them – while Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, January Jones’ Emma Frost and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert provide delightful additions to the franchise.
Elsewhere, however, the newcomers are less impressive. While the original X-film was criticised for feeling like a teaser for adventures to come on behalf of its slim cast, it at least found the time to flesh out its ensemble (OK, maybe not Toad). First Class, on the other hand, feels overcrowded, with many mutants given little to do but change sides and fill out the two organisations – I for one don’t remember hearing Álex González’s Riptide speak once. With the most recognisable mutants still in nappies at this point, the buck falls to an array of dopplegangers and less-than-inspiring B-mutants to take their place. While Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have their moments, Azazel never escapes Nightcrawler’s shadow and Angel Salvadore treads foolishness as the wasp-like go-go girl with explosive vomit.
Other elements that don’t quite work are the split screen training montages (the entire third act rests on Beast having the most productive week ever), the plotting inconsistencies (Beast has created an antidote to his mutation that he doesn’t believe will affect his mutation, quite despite the fact that it is his abnormally prehensile feet that give him his abilities) and the relationship between Xavier and Raven. While this latter issue may resolve itself as they mature into a more organic friendship by movie’s end, the characters’ childhood introductions don’t quite sit right, whether due to scripting issues or the child actors themselves. It is a small gripe, but one that haunts the film’s opening act nonetheless.
First Class is a return to form, however, with the renewed focus on characters and a welcome prioritisation of substance over style (poor special effects can be forgiven, an over-reliance on set pieces cannot) acting as a reminder of how figuratively rich the X-series can be. In tying Nazi occupation and the Cuban missile crisis to a high octane superhero tale of world domination, Goldman has once again delivered a wholly fulfilling script with some well observed inter-character dialogue. That said, although First Class has commendable aspirations, the heavy-handedness with which the name-checking of literary behemoths Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is dealt serves only to illustrate how derivative the medium can be; riffing off existing emotional truths rather than exploring its own. Now five movies in, the core messages of self-actualisation and societal acceptance – while timeless – are beginning to echo previous instalments. Far from the vacuousess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, at least it stands for something.
All in all, X-Men: First Class heralds an exciting new dawn for a franchise steeped in qualitative discrepancy. While some of the plot points might creak as the writers attempt to retrofit the narrative to the original trilogy, and although a few of the characters may fall by the wayside, there is enough wit, innovation and genuine exhilaration to justify a new franchise, even if one less radical than the overhaul befalling Star Trek. That this is largely down to Fassbender and McAvoy – although Lehnsherr may suffer a somewhat severe case of accent ambiguity and Xavier’s preoccupation with his hair might wear a little thin (ahem) – is a reflection not only of the filmmakers’ combined talents, but the quality of the source material from which they draw.