X-Men: First Class
Before Christopher Nolan made the ‘Batman’ name Oscar-worthy and Jon Favreau turned ‘Iron Man’ into a viable franchise, Bryan Singer (‘The Usual Suspects’) was legitimising the comic-book-turned-film genre with the release of ‘X-Men’ in 2000, and it’s sequel, 2003’s ‘X2’, which arguably goes down as one of the finest comic adaptations in cinema history. Then ‘X-Men 3’ was released, Singer jumped ship to work on ‘Superman Returns’, and the less respected Brett Ratner (the ‘Rush Hour’ series) took the reigns as director and, despite all the cast coming back on board, it all went so horribly wrong that it almost appeared as if these mutants had heard their swan song. But if at first you don’t succeed, try a prequel.
Set in the swinging 60’s, ‘First Class’ details the origins of two of the more prominent X Men, Professor X and Magneto. Respectively portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the modern trilogy, here they are presented as Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). A former friendship between these two was hinted at in the original films, and here we get to see how these bonded brothers slowly drift apart towards opposite sides, forming a mutant vs. mutant mentality. Xavier is on the verge of becoming a professor, he uses his mind-reading abilities mainly to pick up women, and he has a close relationship with young Raven (recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence), who we also know as Mystique, a blue skinned girl who can morph into anyone she pleases. Erik has had a far more difficult ‘upbringing’. His early scenes as a young child in the concentration camps during World War 2 introduce both his metal-morphing abilities and the sinister Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant in his own right who can absorb kinetic energy and transform it into raw strength.
As it was Shaw who brought about the violent anger and sadness that harnessed his ability, Erik has spent a great deal of his life searching for him to seek out revenge. Killing a mutant like Shaw isn’t easy though, so it’s lucky Erik and Xavier cross paths. Also after Shaw, learning of his intentions to fuel Cold War tensions, is CIA operative Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) and together with Xavier, the two seek out other mutants to combat Shaw and his henchman, including right-hand woman Emma Frost (January Jones), a telepath who can change her body into diamond form. Amongst the crew are Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hault), a scientist with ultra speed, and Alex Summers (Lucas Till), who can discharge blasts of energy. Avid readers of the comics will be only too aware of the connections these characters have in the ‘X-Men’ universe, and it’s sly nods like that which allow the movie to be enjoyed on multiple levels, depending on who the viewer is. It should also be noted that there are two rather amusing cameos that remind us of the existing trilogy, which were met with particular delight from the audience.
With this being a prequel there’s a certain sense of inevitability that besets all the endeavours we witness. We know Erik will become Magneto and turn against humans, he even claims that no matter how many times mutants save the world, normal people will always see them as enemies, we know that Xavier is going to end up in a wheelchair, and just how will Mystique become Magneto’s right-hand woman when she is so attached to Xavier? Thankfully there’s still fun and surprise into how these foundations are laid.
With Bryan Singer on board as a producer and involved in the story process, ‘First Class’ is already more a part of the ‘X-Men’ series than the third one is, and Matthew Vaughn, who so easily impressed with his hard-hitting ‘Kick-Ass’ in 2010, is clearly equipped to handle the comic book to film transfer. Everyone involved here is perfectly suited to their roles, even if McAvoy, who admittedly loses points for the amount of times he puts his finger to his temple to ‘control minds’, and Fassbender don’t share any resemblance to their eventual silver screen counterparts Stewart and McKellen. They are excellent young performers, and Fassbender in particular shines in the role. Kevin Bacon continues to show his diversity in a glorious 007-esque villain turn that doesn’t get too hammy, Jennifer Lawrence is breathtaking to watch, and though she is too strong an actress for a comic book film, she turns in the goods, and Rose Byrne, with the less showy role as the sole human of the group, once again proves her strength as a performer having this, the horror film ‘Insidious’ and the comedy ‘Bridesmaids’ out almost simultaneously, proving a testament to her talents.
‘X-Men: First Class’ will undoubtedly please the fans of the series, and they can not only be rest assured that it’s better than ‘X-Men 3’, it’s one of the finest instalments in the Marvel catalogue. A prequel that doesn’t suck? Who would’ve thought!