Marvel are in the challenging position today where their films have to satisfy die-hard aficionados of the comic series as well as cater to fans of the film franchise. X-Men: First Class is the prequel to the X-Men series of films and is set predominantly in 1962, as it pays homage to the release of the first X-Men comic (in 1963). The retro setting works well, and there’s a lot there are a nice touches for fans – most obvious being the classic blue & yellow uniforms. The film is aided by providing real-world events such as World War 2, Bay of Pigs and speeches by JFK as a backdrop to the story. Apart from The Watchmen, it doesn’t seem like many comic book movies are firmly set in a particular time- I seem to remember a previous X-Men beginning with ‘In the Near Future’. The time-stamp and context help to drive the plot and also brings focus to the film when it, at times, whips along at too brisk a pace.
This is director Matthew Vaughn’s second foray into the comic book film world- the first being the fantastic Kick-Ass. Vaughn is an engaging and exciting director- incidentally this film is only 5 minutes shorter than Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides (which I saw the night after) but feels about half the length- thanks to the pace and plot-driven storyline. Fans will be happy to note that Bryan Singer also returns as co-writer and producer which could be part of the reason why this film is a return to form for the franchise.
The driving force is undoubtedly the friendship (and its eventual demise) between Professor X and Magneto, portrayed brilliantly by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. The actors had big shoes to fill, playing the roles made famous on screen by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but they delivered. Even for ‘non-fans’, it makes for a spine-tingling moment when you realise what is to become of the two comrades. Fassbender steals the film- he is commanding and charismatic (delivering quite a few laughs), as you learn what lies behind his insatiable appetite for revenge. Just a slight side note, but I’m still lost as to why his character suddenly became ‘Irish’ (Fassbender’s native tongue) in the last 20 minutes of the film.
Jennifer Lawrence (read: Winter’s Bone girl) is also strong as Mystique. She manages to draw interest and adds complexity to a role which is fairly one-dimensional: ‘I want to look normal!’ vs ‘I should embrace myself as I am, right?’ January Jones delivers a largely lifeless performance as Emma Frost. Sure there’s eye-candy as she traipses around lingerie-clad, like a mod-ish Bond girl but there’s zero sass. It seems all too convenient that the filmmakers thought they could just pull Betty Draper from her 60s housewife setting to the 60s world of the X-Men. As she announces momentously “I wouldn’t call it a war exactly, that suggests both sides stand an equal chance of winning”, she sounds a bit like it’s the fiftieth take of the day, and the ‘war’ in question is the furthest thing on her mind. The film’s biggest weakness is it’s rushed nature, some scenes and character plot lines left me unsatisfied and wondering if they were really necessary. A larger focus on the relationship of Professor X and Magneto would have really tipped the film over for me. But, it’s still all you might hope for in this blockbuster and there’s definitely enough to get you excited about the series again.
(Look out for a show-stopping cameo too!)