Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

DIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn.

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Jason Flemyng, Edi Gathegi, Zoe Kravitz, Alex Gonzalez, Oliver Platt.

SYNOPSIS: Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Charles Xavier (McAvoy) brings together a new group of mutants including the troubled Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) to protect the world from its greatest threat. Initially the closest of friends, their differences soon become all too evident, opening up a rift that threatens the peace of Xavier’s X-Men and the human race.

Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass is in my Top Five films of 2010. I loved every crazy second of it and fully bought into the idea of Vaughn as a top-class action director. So after hearing the incredible reviews that were coming in for Vaughn’s First Class, my excitement was at its absolute peak – especially seeing how it managed to keep its claws firmly on an 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for quite so long. Yet X-Men: First Class left me a little cold. And I hate myself for it. I’m not saying it’s a bad film. Far from it. My expectations were maybe just a little too high. What is alarmingly clear, however, is that Matthew Vaughn has finally got the X-Men back on cinematic track.

Trusty sidekick Jane Goldman yet again proves why the two of them make such a good double-act, delivering another script bereft of too many cheesy one-liners and managing to keep the audience on side by avoiding any overly patronizing qualities. I would have been fascinated to see how she would have scripted a certificate 15 version of this film, though, due to how sharp and incredibly funny her Kick-Ass dialogue was. However, I think we all knew anything above a 12 rating was out of the question for Fox’s reboot, steering well clear of a more risky strategy. Where a lot of other scripts may have you struggling to catch-up and make sense of what’s happening, Goldman never leaves you in fear of this, making it easy to follow, but not too dumbed down. She also weaves in some treats for the fans, including some blink and you’ll miss them one-liner in jokes and a couple of great little cameos – one of which might be the best since Zombieland, if not a lot more expected. But I won’t spoil it for you.

A real strength of Vaughn’s film is that he is not afraid to show his heroes as weak, something else that follows on from (but doesn’t mimic) Kick-Ass. There are some beautiful moments where the main male protagonists have tears running down their faces, but it manages to add a real strength to these characters, helping the audience connect to the mutants’ unfathomable situation. These moments never feel particularly clichéd (with Vaughn carefully sidestepping the line of overindulgence) and by letting us access the very crux of Erik Lehnsherr’s pain and anger, the inevitable moment of betrayal becomes all the more harsh and shocking. A special mention must go to Henry Jackman for a fantastic score that compliments the heartfelt scenes perfectly and builds up the drama and tension during all the action.

The prequel element of First Class is handled well, with McAvoy and Fassbender choosing not to mimic their predecessors, but instead making the roles their own. McAvoy initially comes across as more comfortable and commanding, but by the end of the film it will be Fassbender who has you on side, being far more interesting and making you wish Vaughn had opted to delve more into his story. However, at present McAvoy is the most viable of the two in regards to marketing, so this wasn’t entirely surprising, but I think Fox missed a great opportunity by choosing to focus so much on Charles.

McAvoy clearly enjoyed the opportunity to exercise the womanising and somewhat sexist ways of a walking Charles Xavier, pulling off the charming English accent to perfection. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware that Fassbender and Vaughn had decided to give Erik a mixed accent due to his very different upbringing, so I spent the majority of the film being driven to complete distraction by his mainly Irish tones.

Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are the clear stand-outs from the newly formed X-Men, with Caleb Landry Jones’ Banshee close behind due to a lot less screen time. With an Oscar nomination already in hand and The Hunger Games franchise in the pipeline, Lawrence is clearly going to be huge. The character of Raven could have been extremely annoying and whiny, but she made her entirely believable and strong-minded, purely wanting to be accepted for who she is and hoping Charles could understand this rather than constantly taking her for granted. Her excitement at becoming Mystique and handing out nicknames is a very sweet moment and it will be interesting to see how much of a swift turn her character will take if a sequel is greenlit.

The need for so many supporting players is questionable and personally I would have far rather learnt more about Darwin’s (Gathegi) ‘adapt to survive’ skills instead of feeling less than enthusiastic about the back story of Angel (Kravitz). This also applies to Banshee, who is actually a very funny character and whose screen time I felt was taken away by supposed eye-candy Havok (Till). But I guess his power is pretty cool.

In regards to the ‘bad guys’, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw. His German counterpart, however, I thought was fantastic. He grasped the language incredibly well (it’s good to see such a mainstream film not shy away from using subtitles) and this was a character I would have far rather spent the film with, as the menace during the opening scenes was right on the money and Bacon was far more convincing here than when playing up to the Bond-campery for Shaw. Emma Frost (Jones) was criminally robbed of more screen time, with her cleavage leaving us thankful this was a 3D clear zone. Being used to seeing Jones in far more prim and proper or quintessentially girly roles, it was nice to see her have the opportunity to be more forceful and, at times, sadistic. I actually found it pretty frustrating how underused she was, although the effects that turned her exterior into diamonds were very impressive.

Even though it took until the new recruits were assembled at Charles’ mansion and the pitch perfect training montage at the halfway point for the film to finally feel like it had decided on its pace, you cannot entirely blame Vaughn for the slow first half when there is always a significant amount of back story to be told. He obviously cares a great deal about the franchise (having initially been set to direct X-Men: The Last Stand) and this is proved by how he makes the film more about the characters and less about the action. But once the family friendly scraps start, it is clear Vaughn is able to handle them as well as he could the sequences in Kick-Ass – although it is glaringly obvious he has more fun when he is able to show a little blood.

Some have claimed this is the best comic book film since The Dark Knight. That it most definitely is not. Where Nolan has perfected the art of suspense, the threat here never felt as apparent or intense as it could have done and too many supporting characters spoiled the broth – although not quite in Spider-Man 3 proportions. Also, with the film studio rushing through post production, the effects were never going to be as polished and Weta-challenging as they could be, but they come off surprisingly well – it’s not everyday we see a submarine pulled from the ocean now, is it. But ultimately Vaughn should be celebrated for investing in a new group of mainly relative unknowns and resurrecting the franchise from the dregs that was Last Stand. I would love to see what Vaughn and Goldman could do with a sequel, but only time will tell if the director is willing to return to the studio way of directing once again.

VERDICT: 3/5

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2 responses to “Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)

  1. It uses the themes of the previous movies to build an intelligent, fast-paced, and highly entertaining prequel. The performances from the whole cast, especially McAvoy and Fassbender add a lot to these great characters as well. Good Review!

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