This prequel to the ever popular X-Men saga is an entertaining and sometimes camp adventure given weight by impressive central performances. It's great to a see a movie of this breed revelling in its colours and sense of fun in a post-Batman Begins world, despite dramatic dips, daft moments, and diminished results from promising rudiments, Matthew Vaughn's second foray into the world of superheroes mostly succeeds.
In the trilogy started by Bryan Singer and ruined by Brett Ratner's closing effort we followed the fight over humanity and prejudice with Professor Charles Xavier's gang of X-Men against the war efforts of Magneto. Xavier believes in humanity and mutants living in harmony whereas Magneto has nothing but contempt for humans and sees no peace. We know of their long history and once friendship from additions in the scripts but here we learn of their origins and events that shaped the men we've known so far.
First Class starts almost shot for shot as the first X-Men film did; in Poland 1944 the young Erik Lehnsherr (later Magneto) is taken from his parents as they go off to the concentration camps, his distress and fear manifests his powers for the first time allowing him to almost bring down the steel fence between them. Whereas this powerful scene cuts away in Bryan Singer's film here we're granted more as a nearby figure watches on from a window intrigued by the events. This figure is Sebastian Shaw played with joyous villainy by Kevin Bacon in a manor not distant from Christoph Waltz's excellent turn in Inglourious Basterds. Erik is brought up to his office forced to perform his powers again or his mother will be executed in front of him, a scene at first full of suspense and terror ending in a rather laughable show of acting from the young Erik, a real shame. Scarred by his experience we then follow Erik as a cold and disillusioned man focussed on revenge, Michael Fassbender portrays the desperation with a steel like resilience to empathy as he kills his way back to Shaw. Meanwhile, a young Charles Xavier meets a shape shifting girl in his kitchen one night, the girl as we know her is Mystique/Raven. The two grow up together forming a sibling like relationship and the petty squabbling and affection for each other is felt in the defined chemistry between James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. Whereas Fassbender's portal of Erik/Magneto echoes Ian McKellen's efforts, Seeing a young Xavier is mightily interesting as his persona hardly fits the stately wheelchair bound man we've seen over the past three films. McAvoy's Xavier is a 'Jack the lad', a work-hard-party-hard student with a weak spot for the ladies. Seeing him slowly develop into the more world worn man we know him as later is perhaps the films most distinguished pleasure.
As Erik realises his efforts to bring down Shaw are useless without Xavier's band of mutants he joins them in their bid to stop Shaw from using the Cuban missile crisis as a catalyst for World War III. Erik would have no trouble in his retribution against Shaw if it weren't for the powerful telekinetic powers he harvests, powers similar in strength and nature to Xavier's own. Shaw and his beautiful but deadly sidekick Emma Frost (January Jones) seem to be a impenetrable force but the war for mankind and mutant relations wages on.
With Bryan Singer back on board with a story credit this had promise from the start and delivers more than the lacklustre Wolverine prequel, bettering X-Men: The Last Stand but shying short of the franchise's stellar second instalment. Vaughn's writing buddy Jane Goldman joins once again making for further reinforcement, but in a team of five accredited writers there was bound to be some muddles. The story takes a big dip in the middle, whereas the character introductions draw us in as soon as the mutant numbers mount up they become increasingly less interesting as the film loses sight of its main players. Raven/Mystique's relationship with Hank McCoy/Beast feels schematically forced and rushed over, while her affection for Erik is intriguing the juxtaposition between her feelings for the two feels inconsequential and a missed dramatic foothold for the story. Kevin Bacon's dastardly Shaw starts out as a real inspired villain but takes a nose dive into not just mediocrity but plain monotony, a shame such a charismatic start promising a standout antagonist would only exist to occupy dead space. Even Shaw's accomplice offers nothing but eye candy, for an actress who depicts such venom and loathing in Madmen January Jones neither shows an ounce of it here making for a dull forgettable presence also. When Hank McCoy makes the transition into Beast one can only think of Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf (1985), for a transformation that should have contained more than a shade of tragedy for Hank the results are rather comical and doesn't sit as it should. This is just one example of several shoddy makeup/special effects which seems baffling for a production of this magnitude, some of the mutants powers also seem rather thin and neglectful - one female mutant has butterfly wings and only takes seconds into battle to reveal the worthlessness of her contributions. A young man with a high pitch scream is also an irritating addition we could do without.
Still, these little flaws only add to the camp nature of the film, whether camp was what the filmmakers aimed for is unknown but camp is what they got. The 60s setting strangely wavers at times making it easy to forget we're watching a period piece, the set/costume design could have been more prominent but maybe some of the secret advanced technology disguises these efforts. When successfully encompassing the 60s its general camp manner and occasional suave turns from Fassbender takes us into classic James Bond territory with its pantomime villain - Bond a la Roger Moore that is.
Though the focus laid off them hurts the film somewhat the talents of Fassbender, McAvoy, and Lawrence acts as the glue holding it together. Each bring the same A-game they've brought to the gritty dramas we're used to them in, never looking down their noses at the material and clearly having fun with their characters. Matthew Vaughn's fluid flashy direction is still present though less successful than his previous films, possibly due to the weight of the production this time.
The aim of X-Men: First Class was to show the beginnings of the franchise's two opposed leaders fighting for and against mankind due to their differing world views; the film succeed at this whole heartedly making it a deepening exercise rather than the money spinner it so easily could have become. By the end we see the paths laid out for both Erik and Charles after witnessing the events that later define them. Despite some sloppy moments of direction and inconsistent writing the results still manage to convince and entertain, a job well done with much to improve upon in the recently announced sequel.