X-Men: First Class

After a so-so opening to the blockbuster season in 2011, it’s a pleasant relief to report that Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class lives up to the hype (and its subtitle). It’s not as consistently brilliant as Nolan’s two Batman films, nor does it have the crazily wacky irreverence of Vaughn’s earlier foray into superheroics, Kick-Ass. What it does boast are cracking action scenes, a witty and intelligent screenplay that assumes some people don’t need every bit of subtext patronizingly spelt out, and some near-sublime leading performances. It all adds up to a very superior slice of mainstream filmmaking.

Opening, as Bryan Singer’s first film did, with the young Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner as a child, Michael Fassbender as an adult) at Auschwitz – thereby setting the stakes that much higher than your average origin story – the plot soon dovetails into, initially, a twofold narrative. In the first, the young academic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) find themselves approached by the CIA in the form of Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), in the 1960s as they investigate the nefarious activities of the Hellfire Club, led by the charismatic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Meanwhile, Lensherr, intent on vengeance against those who tormented him and his family at the camps, finds himself slowly drawn into Xavier’s band of mutants as it becomes clear what, precisely, Shaw’s endgame is.

If the word ‘mutants’ in the above synopsis seems incongruous, this reflects one of the strengths of the film. Less in thrall to fantasy elements that Singer’s first two in the trilogy (let’s not speak about Brett Ratner’s disappointing third), it undeniably offers some stirring effects work as the various characters show off their superpowers (there are several more, most of whom are, perhaps necessarily, somewhat underdeveloped), but it’s equally if not more interesting when the characters sit down and talk. This is partly because the 60s setting offers much topical meat – the Cuban Missile Crisis plays a pivotal role – but also because the acting is so bloody good.

Most people will walk out of this film singing the praises of Fassbender as Erik Lensherr-turned-Magneto. There’s a simple reason for this; he’s fantastically charismatic in a complex and highly nuanced role which isn’t hero, villain or even anti-hero, but an interesting response to Ian McKellen’s more stately, theatrical take on the character. At times, he channels Connery-era Bond with enormous success (the campaign for him to succeed Daniel Craig as 007 starts now), at others he plays the character of avenging angel with almost frightening conviction and hints of sadism. An early bar scene rivals the one in Inglourious Bastards for bloody intensity.

He’s well supported by a twinkly McAvoy, bringing his considerable acting gifts to a role that in the wrong hands might have ended up as Professor X-position, and Bacon, a genuinely chilling and nasty villain. A game supporting cast all bring their various skills to the characters, whether it’s January Jones’ ornamental baddie Emma Frost, Nicholas Hoult’s affecting Beast or Lawrence’s liberated Mystique. There are also a couple of fun surprise cameos and even an appearance by Vaughn’s perennial favourite Jason Flemyng, though no Dexter Fletcher this time around.

It’s not perfect. Some of the special effects are slightly fake-looking (perhaps as a result of the film’s hasty gestation), parts of the final act feel rushed and perfunctory (barring a very satisfying face-off between two of the leading figures), the Hellfire Club is an interesting but underused concept and some may cavil that most of the leading ladies seem to spend too long in their lingerie for comfort. All true. But this is set against the film’s considerable and undeniable strengths. It’s not just a good superhero film or summer film, it’s a good piece of cinema, full stop. And how can you not warm to a movie that has the eccentricity to have one character actually deliver the time-honoured line ‘More tea, vicar?’

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