Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast:James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Benjamin Walker, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Edi Gathegi, Bill Bilner, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Ray Wise
RunTime: 2 hrs 12 mins
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Rating: PG (Violence)
Official Website: http://www.x-menfirstclass.com/
Opening Day: 2 June 2011
Synopsis: X-Men: First Class charts the epic beginning of the X-Men saga, and reveals a secret history of famous global events. Before mutants had revealed themselves to the world, and before Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr took the names Professor X and Magneto, they were two young men discovering their powers for the first time. Not archenemies, they were instead at first the closest of friends, working together with other Mutants (some familiar, some new), to stop Armageddon. In the process, a grave rift between them opened, which began the eternal war between Magneto's Brotherhood and Professor X's X-Men.
The X Men movies followed a similar trajectory to another Marvel property “Spiderman”- the first movie was a surprising blast, the second built on the merits of the first to deliver ever bigger and better thrills, but the third just knocked the wind out of the sails. And so like any self-respecting franchise would do, you go back to the beginning and start all over again- well, in this case, much much further back to the beginning.
The director with the unenviable task of rebooting one of the premier Marvel superhero titles is Matthew Vaughn, best known for subverting the genre last summer with the cult favourite “Kick-Ass”. Here Vaughn tucks away the subversion for some mainstream summer entertainment- yes, none of that violence that got some people riled up (remember Hit-Girl?)- and boy does he do a bang-up, and I would say, kick-ass job reviving the franchise.
Sure, it probably isn’t as fresh as the first “X Men”, nor as insanely brilliant as “X2 United”, but Vaughn exceeds all expectations- modest or lofty- in creating an origins story that captures the heart of what the series was all about. But to do so, Vaughn has gone way back to the 1960s when the United States and Russia were locked in a Cold War and the prospect of World War III came so imminent with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Vaughn in fact begins his story much earlier with a prologue that establishes the childhood days of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. Whereas Charles grew up in an affluent but isolated stately home in New York, Erik was locked up in a concentration camp in Poland. It is there Erik first meets the Auschwitz doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who kills Erik’s mother in plain sight of him in order to get him to demonstrate his powers. The contrast is key- it is ultimately their childhood circumstances that will have far-reaching repercussions on their divergent paths in life later on.
And so while Charles becomes an Oxford academic on genetics and envisions a world where humans and mutants can live in harmony with one another, Erik is plotting his revenge against Shaw and cynical of the very utopia Charles cherishes. But when the fate of the world hangs by a nuclear thread, the two find a common enemy- together with the CIA no less- in Shaw and so put aside their ideological differences to fight alongside each other.
It isn’t as simple as a union of conveniences- Charles and Erik fast become firm friends, and they band together to start a school for mutants. Among those recruited are the brainbox and soon-to-be-Beast Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), the sonic-screamer and soon-to-be-Banshee Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), the plasma-blasting and soon-to-be-Havok Alex Summers (Lucas Till), as well as the winged Angel Salvatore (Zoe Kravitz). Shaw also has his own army- icy Emma Frost (January Jones), teleporter Azaael (Jason Flemyng) and the tornado-spinning Riptide (Alex Gonzalez).
There certainly isn’t enough time to give each of the multitude of characters a back-story, but at least Vaughn sets aside space within the spectacular action-packed climax for each of them to show off their unique superpowers. Rather, Vaughn and his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman (working off a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer) give weight instead to the central relationship between Charles and Erik, emphasising on the bond between the two close friends and their eventual descent into bitter enemies as Professor X and Magneto.
It is in the intimate character drama between Charles and Erik where the movie achieves its greatest payoff. Some of the best lines in the script are reserved for the witty interplay between the two characters, and are especially thought-provoking in their arguments for and against war and diplomacy. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender also share great bromantic chemistry with each other, and their excellent performances- one the dashing yet dangerous individual, and the other the charming and intelligent fellow- allow the friendship between their characters to be the rightful emotional heart of the film.
But to bring home the raison d’être for their disagreement is the budding relationship between Hank (aka Beast) and shape-shifting and future-Mystique Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Their constant struggle to accept their extraordinary looks (Raven’s blue form and Hank’s hands-for-feet) or correct their perceived abnormalities so as to better fit into society crystallise the very humanistic message of the X Men series- that of embracing those who may be different from us, but who have every right as us to belong in our society.
Hoult and Lawrence are also outstanding in their own right, and the movie benefits tremendously from strong performances all around. Kevin Bacon is all smarmy menace as Shaw, while Rose Bryne brings a welcome touch of humanism as the rare human in the film to accept these extraordinaires. Veteran character players James Remar, Michael Ironside and Ray Wise add a touch of class to the proceedings, while fanboys will delight over a killer cameo in the movie.
The person who deserves credit for pulling it all together is Vaughn, who so deftly mixes fact and fiction to create an awfully plausible version of alternate reality. Ingenious was the move to situate the might-vs-right dynamic between Charles and Erik against the backdrop of the Cold War, the events of history providing both significance and gravitas, and Vaughn stages the events with terrific pacing and much aplomb. So too is his handling of the action scenes in the film, especially the explosive climax where we get to see the mutants unleash their powers in their full glory.
With “X Men: First Class”, Vaughn has breathed new life into a franchise that ran aground with its bland and formulaic “Last Stand” and an otherwise unremarkable “Wolverine” spinoff. Admittedly, the storytelling could have been smoother, but Vaughn’s reimagining of the X Men universe is more than robust, especially with an intelligent tightly-plotted script, outstanding lead performances and thrilling action sequences. It may not match the brilliance of Bryan Singer’s first two films, but this is perhaps as close as it gets.
(A first-class summer blockbuster that packs awesome action, great character drama and outstanding lead performances to restore the X Men franchise back to glory)
Review by Gabriel Chong