Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence
The worst offender is the reveal of Beast – who lumbers into frame in silhouette looking exactly like a mentally enfeebled, chromatically-confused Honey Monster
In a time before mutants were revealed to the world, Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) were allies and friends – bound together by a dangerous mission to take on Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a man set on bringing about nuclear Armageddon.
The expectation (and pressure) on X-Men: First Class couldn’t be higher. The franchise essentially created the comic book blockbuster back in 2000 but it stumbled with X-Men 3 and landed face first in a cess pool when Wolverine arrived in 2009. First Class not only has to keep fans of the series content but it also has to successfully relaunch a flagging franchise and, not incidentally, make a ton of money at the same time.
On paper, director and co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn seems like the perfect man for the job. His take on Neil Gaiman’s Stardust was sublime and he handled the potentially problematic tone of Kick-Ass splendidly. Here, he has some similar themes to deal with – teen angst, the marriage of fantasy and real worlds and the dense web of a morality play. By rights, it should be the film of the year, but it really isn’t...
X-Men: First Class isn’t a terrible movie – there are many competent and even entertaining moments in its 132 minute runtime, but they rarely become more than that. The many and varied elements always seem disparate and discreet, they don’t gel into a coherent whole for long enough to give you a sense of what the film wants to be. So you may enjoy the action packed finale or Fassbender’s revenge fuelled jet-setting or McAvoy’s lecherous ways but they never quite feel like they belong in the same movie.
Partly, it’s a question of tone. One moment you’ll be witnessing a frankly disturbing torture sequence featuring some amateur dentistry and the next you’re watching a bleary eyed young Charles Xavier using a tried and tested pick up line. Then we’ll veer into teen comedy territory for a couple of scenes before being reminded that some serious, world ending, stuff is really supposed to be happening. The films biggest laugh comes in the form of a genuinely effective cameo but it’s a totally pandering moment, a personality free nod to the rest of the series and an affront to established canon. Vaughn openly courts moments like these – the cheapest laughs, an endless line of clichés and some bone headed concessions to the movies 1960s setting.
It starts strong, but even here the filmmakers felt the need to reference the opening of Bryan Singer’s original movie – with a shot by shot recreation of the flashback featuring the young Magneto at a concentration camp in 1944. It’s clear the film is trying to present a connection for audiences but it just feels lazy and unnecessary. From there, we’re treated to the origin story of the young Erik Lehnsherr and it is genuinely harrowing, while also showing off the violent potential of his telekinetic gift like never before. The finest and most memorable moments of First Class all belong to Lehnsherr, particularly once he’s embodied by Fassbender and you almost wish for a visceral 90 minutes devoted to just this character.
McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is more problematic. There’s a noble attempt to paint him as slightly more human but he instead comes off as alternately sleazy and condescending. His gift, and his intellect, makes him look down on all people – human and mutant alike – and the superior way in which he lectures his students in a late on training montage makes his character even less likeable. Apart from a serviceable Kevin Bacon as Shaw and Jennifer Lawrence’s underwhelming Mystique, the glut of supporting players means most get minimal screen time and some don’t even utter a single word. A large ensemble cast may seem like a good idea for a film of this type but it divides the audience’s attention too much as they wonder who is worth focussing on.
Some sense of moderation could also have helped with the bloated narrative, which constantly redefines the intentions of its villain and leaves us without a single consistent protagonist. Is it about Magneto and Professor X or the kids who become the first X-Men? And how has the human population not noticed the existence of mutants with all the incredibly weird shit going on?
With so many characters comes another problem which is becoming more and more prevalent in comic book adaptations – power fatigue. We’re really starting to scrape the bottom of the super power barrel this year with characters like Green Lantern on screen. His powers don’t work on anything yellow. Yellow, for Christ’s sake! In First Class, Banshee flies by screaming at the ground, Angel has acidic phlegm and Havok appears to throw hyperdestructive hula-hoops with his hips. Seriously studio-types – just because you have a character hidden in a drawer somewhere who causes earthquakes by breaking wind doesn’t mean we need to see him on screen. Ever.
The odd choices don’t stop there – from the ridiculous female attire on show (and an Austin Powers worthy moment when Rose Byrne goes undercover in her underwear) to the zany split screen montages which resemble nothing so much as a Rock Hudson comedy. The worst offender is the reveal of Beast – who lumbers into frame in silhouette looking exactly like a mentally enfeebled, chromatically-confused Honey Monster.
X-Men: First Class does work from time to time – especially when Fassbender is doing his super-powered superspy thing. He’s simply fantastic in the role, pulling layers of emotion from his meagre back story and playing the tortured and twisted morality to the hilt. The finale benefits hugely from his presence, finally bedding down in some decent action while Henry Jackman’s (no relation) score does suitable things to your emotions. It’s not enough to save the film but it gives you a glimpse into what this superhero melee might have been.
Vaughn’s talent is undeniable but too many characters, a blundering, overwritten plot, dull dialogue and two dimensional characters make X-Men: First Class an exercise in disappointment. There’s some entertainment to be found here but the film ultimately falls far short of its potential.