Wednesday, June 25, 2014
X-Men: First Class
You know how they didn’t make ‘X-Men Origins: Magneto’? They did at least have the good grace to incorporate a chunk of it into ‘X-Men: First Class’. And with only a few caveats, they made one hell of a good job of it, reinvigorating the franchise and happily setting things up for the late-period shot at greatness that is ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.
When I originally reviewed ‘X-Men: First Class’ for on this blog in June 2011, I couldn’t make up my mind if it was a piss-take, a prequel or director Matthew Vaughan’s showreel for the Broccolis. I also speculated that he’d make a darned good Bond director and that if Daniel Craig decided to hang up the mantle, Michael Fassbender would make a damned good 007.
Watching the film again, for the first time in three years, I’m still of the opinion that it’s a bit of all three, but leaning very heavily towards the Bond-film-with-mutants aesthetic, referencing ‘Thunderball’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’ specifically. The opening sequence, however, takes us back to Bryan Singer’s first X-Men flick as the young Erik Lehnsherr is pried away from his mother by Nazi guards in 1944 and responds with a metal-bending display of power until a rifle butt to the head knocks him out. Next we’re in some Ivy League part of America where the privileged young Charles Xavier meets the young Raven. They’re all kids, and they all realize they’re not exactly normal. But whereas Xavier subjugates his power (or, as he calls it, mutation) and impresses on Raven to do the same, Lehnsherr doesn’t have the same luxury. He’s delivered into the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who quickly discovers that the key to unleashing Lehnsherr’s power is his anger. He discovers this by shooting Lehnsherr’s mother.
The juxtaposition of Xavier and Lehnsherr’s formative years continues apace as Xavier (James McAvoy), now in his twenties and a graduate of “Oxford University, England” (‘First Class’ boasts some howlingly obvious establishing credits, the next best one being “Moscow, Russia”) is steered away from the groves of academe by CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) who recruits him into an unofficial intelligence branch headed up by The Man in the Black Suit (Oliver Platt); while Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbinder) – all growed up and pretty freakin’ mean with it – is on a globe-trotting mission of revenge against Shaw.
It’s 1962 by this point in the narrative, as evidenced by more of those idiot-proof establishing credits and enough stock footage of John F Kennedy that I’m surprised the family’s lawyer didn’t write to Vaughan and co. demanding a percentage point of the box office gross. Anyway: it’s 1962, all groovy tunes and Cold War shenanigans, and the world’s attention is focused on Cuba. Shaw is intent on playing the superpowers off against each other a la Blofeld, assisted by sexy but deadly right-hand-woman Emma Frost (January Jones) and their entourage of seemingly invincible goons. In addition to the Bond-isms – a globe-trotting narrative, entire swathes of funky 60s décor, a determinedly unPC attitude to female characters (Rose Byrne’s intro has her sashaying around a go-go bar in her underwear; January Jones’s cleavage puts the fucking missiles to shame); more gadgets than Q Department could shake a standard issue stick with modifications at (allowing, of course, for the fact that the mutants are pretty much gadgets in their own right) – there’s also a touch of the ‘Dr Strangelove’ in the politicking and the pseudo-tense council-of-war scenes. There were whole tranches of the movies where I was praying for someone to pop up and say, aghast, “Gentlemen, you can’t mutate in here. This is the war room.”
In between all of this business, Vaughan economically establishes the (albeit brief) friendship between Xavier and Lehnsherr, and has fun staging a “rounding up the team” kind of sequence with Xavier using a prototype Cerebro to identify fellow mutants. Cue a Hugh Jackman cameo where he delivers a gruff three-word line of dialogue and pretty much walks off with the whole film.
‘First Class’ is fun and frothy for much of its two hour plus running time, and it’s perhaps because of the sheer entertainment value that the continuity flubs don’t bother me here as much as they do elsewhere in the franchise. Flubs like Emma Frost being a twenty-something hottie consort of Shaw in 1962 while ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ has her as twenty-something hottie incarcerated by Stryker in the mid-1980s. Flubs like Xavier losing the use of his legs in the big finale whereas he’s fully ambulatory at the end of ‘Wolverine’. Flubs like Mystique seeming only to age about a decade between ‘First Class’ and the original trilogy (or maybe the gal just found a way to halt the ageing process, in which case good for her!)
It’s also very well acted for the most part. Fassbender takes the honours, capturing every bit of Ian McKellan’s ruthless charm and steely intelligence as Magneto. McAvoy doesn’t do quite as well at reverse-engineering Patrick Stewart, but he plays it utterly straight and that’s what counts. Lawrence is very good as Raven, but on less confident ground as she becomes Mystique towards the end (a problem that carries over into ‘Days of Future Past’. Bacon has huge fun as Shaw, every bit as suave, cruel and egomaniacal as any Bond villain you can imagine. Byrne and Platt acquit themselves well, if not memorably, and the only let-down is January Jones: instead of imbuing Frost with ice-maiden seductiveness, she comes across as simply disinterested.
Apart from Jones’s performance, the only problem with ‘First Class’ is that it’s so busy being an origin story, an espionage epic, a revenge thriller and a production designer’s wet dream that it barely has time to draw a breath. The scenes of Xavier and Lehnsherr working together – which are, let’s face it, the absolute heart of the film – feel rushed and Vaughan never quite finds that one defining moment that explains why, half a century later and with all manner of perfidy between them in the meantime, Xavier still refers to Magneto as “my friend”.