Marvel have now got more of their properties on the big screen that you can shake an adamantium claw at; so many in fact that like some kind of gigantic comic book Ourobourous, they’re starting to bite their own tail, revisiting franchises which are scarcely 10 years old. This will be no more apparent than in the full-blown Spider-man reboot next year but in the mean time the current X-Men story is coming full circle with its own prequel.
Set in the 1960s, X-Men First Class is the story of how the superhero team got started in the first place, charting the creation of Professor Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted and his friendship with his future arch-rival Magneto (nee Erik Lehnsherr). Together they face off against mutant supremacist Sebastian Shaw and his evil mutants as he tries to steer the world superpowers towards nuclear war.
Having brought anarchic ultra-violence to the big screen in Kick Ass last year, director Matthew Vaughn is perfectly poised to sharpen the edges of the X-Men franchise. It shows; X-Men First Class is the edgiest of the X-Men films so far with some inventively dark sequences which are great fun to watch – red-skinned demon Azazel using his teleportation to send enemies plummeting to their doom; Erik using his mastery of magnetism to torture and kill enemies in gleefully sadistic ways – there’s a real menace that was absent from the franchise and it’s a welcome shift in tone.
The stars of the show are undoubtedly McAvoy and Fassbender. Fassbender is particularly good (if you ignore his wobbly accent), oozing detached menace one moment and barely suppressed rage the next – early scenes in which he uses his powers to kill fugitive Nazis are among the best in the movie – but the writing leaves him little room to manoeuvre. In the absence of ubiquitous anti-hero Wolverine, Magneto seems to have slipped into his shoes – far from being the “other side of the same coin” that was hinted at in the first X-movie, he’s just a replacement revenge-monkey assuming the position.
Kevin Bacon also makes a welcome return to the screen as Sebastian Shaw – he’s the perfect comic-book menace – almost cartoonish in his villainy. He might chew the scenery but he does it like no other.
But despite the quality of the cast, the script doesn’t do them justice. The conflict between Professor X and Magneto is one of the most notable storylines in comic book history: towering intellects that both want mutant liberation but disagree about the methodology. It’s therefore frustrating that the script is so desperate to establish connections with the original storyline that it tries to shoehorn as many references in as it possibly can to the detriment of the central plot.
That’s all well and good if it’s done subtly – a hint of foreshadowing here, a reference there but First Class is so worried that its audience might miss things that it places these in full view, detracting from a decent storyline which could have easily stood on its own.
There’s also the familiar problem of too many characters and while some effort is made to give them their own developing concerns and emotions, these feel like token digressions. Consequently, they quickly become faceless automatons with powers – you start thinking of them less as individuals but a collection of abilities; there’s the one that can fly; the one that shoots lasers out of his stomach; the one that screams; what was his name again? Even Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, doesn’t have much to do as the shapeshifter Mystique – her “desire for normality” subplot is pathetically two-dimensional and underdeveloped.
It’s also peppered with plot holes – Beast spends the majority of his time developing a cure which will only affect mutants cosmetically (so they can appear “normal”) but won’t affect their powers. Quite how he’s planning to swing from the ceiling from his feet when his own powers are so physically dependent seems to have escaped hm. Not to mention Professor X’s grasp of evolution wouldn’t enable him to pass a GCSE biology exam let alone a PhD from one of the world’s finest universities.
Some of the action sequences, especially those in the latter half are admittedly impressive and echo the exciting team dynamic last seen in X2 but there’s no groundbreaking set-piece and nothing that will cause jaws to drop.
If they’d slowed the pace down and concentrated on the titanic figures of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr and their relationship and actually allowed characters room to breathe and develop, then this could have been a magnificent start to a new trilogy. Instead, sprinkled with an army of sketchily characterised super powered brats (each of which seem to be variations on characters that already appear elsewhere in the previous three movies), this latest incarnation feels rushed, half-baked and curiously unfinished.
It’s definitely a pass, but First Class? No siree.