Let’s get one thing straight. People aren’t necessarily going to be flocking to see X Men: First Class for its storyline. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a pretty neat tale that is played out well, but the true fact of the matter is that people want to see what Professor X was like when he was a kid, heck, what he was like when he had hair… and working legs. Was Magneto always so heartless, so power hungry? The images released in the run-up to the film’s release, though blasted by critics, did nothing to quieten the hype. Thankfully the film lives up to expectations and offers us a glimpse of the X Men before they became comic book stalwarts, back to when they were normal (we use the term very loosely) people.
The film opens in the mid 1940’s and we watch as Eric Lehnsherr (who would later become Magneto played here masterfully by Michael Fassbender) is once again separated from his parents in a concentration camp (a scene that echoes that was first supplied in the original X Men trilogy). It is Eric’s storyline that is perhaps the most interesting, with his torturous upbringing, coupled with his thirst for revenge, making for captivating viewing. Whilst Eric suffers at the hands of the Nazi regime Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) befriends Raven (who would later become the nasty Mystique) and studies genetics at Oxford (when he’s not busy womanizing, a strange sight for Professor X fans,).
Although it may sound confusing, X Men: First Class deals with its content ably and applies what is essentially a web of back-stories onto a backdrop which largely focuses on the Cuban missile crisis. With Eric hungry to avenge his mother’s death, we learn that the man he seeks is planning to stage world war three to separate the men from the mutants. His nemesis? Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), downright baddie who packs a powerful mutation and surrounds himself with hugely capable, if sometimes a little wooden, mutants (namely location-shifting Azazel and scantily clad diamond lady Emma Frost (January Jones))… unlike Magneto’s future sidekicks Juggernaut and Sabretooth, these guys can hold their own.
First Class is very much a character-driven piece. The sheer amount of characters we are introduced to sometimes dilutes the impact of their individual stories but the visual enjoyment provided by their powers makes this excusable. Nicholas Hoult (yes, him out of About A Boy) stars as the super-intelligent Beast before he was blue and hairy whilst Jennifer Lawrence appears as shape-shifting Raven who battles with body image worries of the very worst kind. Cyclop’s relative Havok appears, as does sonic-screaming Banshee. Although some characters have canon fodder written all over them from the off, they nonetheless add to the film’s sense of newness as they battle with their unprecedented powers. There’s a good (if brief) cameo from a fan-favourite X Man (does it work as a singular tag?) but sometimes Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira can’t compete with the mutants she shares the screen with, casting her to the sidelines.
Although the film is set in the 1960’s, most of the sets and gadgets look modern with only a glimpse of retro flare. It is the scenes which feature Bacon’s Shaw that have the most 60’s feel, his submarine’s mirrored atomic room being a notable example. The costume department nods toward the decade with several turtle necks and mini skirts being worn whilst there are several scenes where girls (namely January Jones’s Frost) wear very little (an inclusion which catches the eye of Xavier – very un-Patrick Stewart of him!). The film’s finale, a race to stop world war three, looks no different than one you might expect in modern film.
The film of course inevitably suffers from various clichés thrown in to appease those expecting them so the larger-than-life finale (complete with a submarine hurtling through the sky) is interspersed with cheesy lines from both the Russians and the Americans, feeding us the realisation that they’re just innocent men following orders, too, slapping on a level of they’re-people-too-ness that the film just doesn’t need. The power of the finale, however, remains and there are some admittedly great moments.
There are also some slight niggles with some of the actions taken and decisions made – just why did Shaw destroy the entire secret CIA building just to essentially say ‘Hi guys, if you wanna be in my gang that’s cool, if not, see you around’? Why not send Azazel in to get them and torture them til they were bad? Anyway…
It is the film’s dealing with the idea of genocide, along with the problems that arise when being different from society that sets the film apart from its predecessors and successfully gives it an edge. First Class is, quite simply, better than the superhero fodder of the original trilogy and could, quite easily, be watched by someone who hasn’t seen previous X offerings. For those who have, and for fans of the superhero group, there are countless in-jokes and references that will no doubt entertain (McAvoy’s Xavier is, rather ironically, attached to his hair here). Although it may not be truly first class it promises sequels could be.
Best performance: Fassbender as Magneto.
Best power: Although Prof. X’s telepathic abilities are awe-inspiring we reckon zapping from place to place could be quite cool. Shame about Azazel’s skin condition though.
Best baddie: Shaw, by far.