…Marks the Spot
If you're anything like me–which is admittedly highly unlikely, but anyway– there are two things to bear in mind about X-Men: First Class. Firstly… well actually, we'll come to that, as it's kind of central to the concept of the film…and secondly, there isn't a post-credits sequence, so you can clear off home at the end without seeing the names of all the carpenters safe in the knowledge you won't miss anything. Public service reviewing, that's what this is.
Matthew Vaughn's relentlessly entertaining movie is mostly set in 1962, with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, sigh) discovering playboy millionaire Sebastian Shaw (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) is manipulating both the US military and the Russians for his own nefarious ends. Even more startlingly, it seems that Shaw is backed up by a covey of genetically divergent scallywags (amongst them January Jones and Jason Flemyng) with uncanny superhuman powers.
Set on stopping Shaw, Moira recruits genetics expert Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his shifty friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) for assistance, unaware that both possess startling abilities of their own. And what nobody is aware of is that Shaw is also being stalked by Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a man who originally encountered him in a Nazi death camp, but who was saved when Shaw recognised his own special gift: the power to control magnetic fields.
With Shaw's plan to force a crisis between the global superpowers nearing completion, Xavier and Lehnsherr realise they will need assistance of their own, and so they set about recruiting a team of other young mutants to assist them. Taking their name from the initial of one of their founders, a new faction is born, fighting for peace and understanding: the L-Men! Oh, hang on a minute…
If X-Men: First Class brings anything genuinely new to the superhero genre, it's the idea of taking the story out of the present day and presenting it almost as a period piece. Vaughn grabs this ball and runs enthusiastically with it, with the resulting film in places looking more like a Bond or even Austin Powers pastiche than anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, introducing big special effects sequences into a spy thriller works extremely well and the sixties detail adds a lot of charm to the movie. (There's one sequence at a slightly debauched party where Rose Byrne has to walk around in her underwear that felt a little bit leery and lubricious, but, it's Rose Byrne in her underwear, and I can only genuinely object so much.)
Despite the fact that this movie is set around the time that the comic first appeared, precious few of the original characters actually make an appearance, a consequence of having to maintain nominal continuity with the other movies. Some of the X-Men this time around made their comics debut well after the movie series got going, if we're going to be particular about this. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, in addition to those already mentioned, your X-Men for this picture are a new version of Angel, the Beast, Havok, Banshee, and Darwin (what can I say, silly name, silly mutant power). Nicholas Hoult is rather good as Beast, but the others are really only there to fill out the numbers and perk up the climax: most of the time the film is preoccupied with other people.
It certainly seems to be the case that bad guys have more fun, because while McAvoy gives a fine performance as Professor X (although his tic of putting a finger to his temple and frowning whenever he does anything psychic is perhaps a little overused) he doesn't command the film to anything like the same extent as Fassbender, whose performance as Magneto is appropriately , ermmm, compelling. He's got the looks, the moves, and the intensity for the part, and after a while you stop even thinking about Ian McKellen. He does pick up a slightly startling Irish accent at a couple of points, however, and, as seems common with this kind of film, his transformation from avenger to terrorist seems a little too abrupt to convince entirely. It's still Fassbender's movie though.
Also very good, I should say, is Jennifer Lawrence, who manages to bring real depth and feeling and reality to a character who previously hasn't been much more than a striking visual gimmick. Watching the older movies again you won't look at the character Lawrence plays here in quite the same way–a hugely impressive achievement.
All this is possible, of course, because X-Men: First Class is a prequel and gives the film-makers a chance to explore the roots and personalities of characters we already know and care about. That said, this kind of film can have problems of its own: there can either be the sense that all that's happening is pieces being shuffled about, preparatory to being left where they were at the start of the original series (case in point, the climax of Revenge of the Sith, which revolves around fights between four characters all of whom we know will survive), or the problem that all this is really just prep work for a future (or past) movie which is where all the fun happens (great though it is, I caught a whiff of that off Batman Begins).
Impressively, First Class doesn't really suffer from either of these issues. Where it does fall down is in its affliction with what I term Star Trek Reboot syndrome, after the last movie in that series. This kind of prequel is largely sold on the promise that 'this is the story of how the characters came to be the people you already know and care about.' The thing about the last Star Trek movie is that it was nothing of the sort. It was actually the story of how the characters came to be subtly different people from the ones we know and care about, living in an alternate universe. The thread connecting the original series and the prequel was not intact.
X-Men: First Class doesn't go out of its way to obliterate the original continuity with a massive time paradox like Star Trek did, but it's still very clear to anyone paying close attention that this movie is not set in the same history as the others–the chronology of certain key events alluded to in the original series has been altered. (This breaking-of-continuity is the thing I referred to at the beginning of the review.) You may dismiss this as just geekish pedantry, but surely the whole point of this kind of movie is to respect the original story? Part of the power of this film comes from seeing the characters and knowing how they're going to end up, but given that the film seems to regard the destinies predicted elsewhere as being mutable, we don't know for sure that this is really what's going to happen. In which case, isn't it just cashing in on our investment?
Let me be clear: this in no way spoils the movie as a piece of crowdpleasing blockbuster entertainment, and most people probably won't care about it one iota. But for some of the series' biggest fans (and I wouldn't even necessarily include myself in that number) this may well colour their perceptions and enjoyment of the film.
I'm also half-minded to say something about the way the film turns the Cuban missile crisis, one of the key events of recent history, into not much more than the backdrop to a superhero fight. All right, I have seen much more tasteless things on screen, but even so. It's not even as if there's some subtextual link between the crisis and the story on screen: the film doesn't really use being a mutant as a metaphor for anything, except in the most general and woolly of ways. Magneto alludes darkly to the Holocaust at one point, but the film sensibly backs away from exploring this angle (so they're not completely insensitive to the weight of history).
Anyway, after a while the groovy sixties detail and other historical stuff falls by the wayside and it starts operating in the same kind of territory as the other films, with a climax that surely goes on a little too long. On the other hand, this is a smart and stylish movie that isn't afraid to be openly and enthusiastically comic-booky (which was where Bryan Singer's contributions really fell short for me).
I'm not really sure what the comic-book fan constituency is going to make of this movie, nor people who know the X-Men solely from their screen incarnations. It seems to be reaching out to both groups, with costumes that much more closely resemble the comic versions, various allusions to McAvoy losing his hair, and even…no, it's a terrific moment, the best gag in the movie, and I can't spoil it…but on the other hand–well, look, the movie version of Moira MacTaggert is an in-name-only reference to the one in the books. The same is very nearly true of the movie's take on Riptide. Is it really so easy to tickle the happy buttons of comic book fans? Perhaps it is; I wouldn't really know (though ask me again when Green Lantern comes out).
If you have any sort of tolerance for big, colourful, spectacular summer movies, then X-Men: First Class should be able to give your own happy buttons at least a minor caress. It takes itself seriously as a drama, with proper performances and characterisations, but couples them with a great sense of fun and an eye for big cinematic moments. It's a very satisfying confection, in a way that Thor, to be perfectly honest, wasn't. The first X-Men essentially opened the door for Marvel characters to dominate summer cinema in the way they have for a decade or so now, and with First Class the trend shows no sign of running out of steam. A great summer movie and quite possibly the best X-Men movie yet.