Not just one of the best films of the Summer, but the best films of the year; X-Men: First Class offers smart thrills for most of it’s running time, with just a few unfortunate caveats which we’ll get into soon enough. Rest assured though that Matthew Vaughn has created a film that not only distances itself from some unfortunate entries that came before it, but leaves you hungry for more.
I’ll try and keep my views as spoiler-free as possible, but those of you who like knowing nothing about a film might need to skip this entry.
In a homage to the original film we open up in a concentration camp, where a child is being ripped away from his parents. They’re led through metal gates as the boy watches. He reaches out in anguish and suddenly the gates start to buckle, almost ripping apart. The boy is knocked cold before he can do any more damage and is seen by the watchful eye of Kevin Bacon (Not playing Kevin Bacon, but a Nazi scientist. I’d probably love this film forever if he was actually playing himself).
When we leave him he’s being probed and prodded to get to the root of his power, and we leave this young boy’s sorry existence there for the time being. Almost simultaneously, across the other side of the word, we meet a young Charles Xavier. He spots an intruder in his kitchen and recognises almost immediately that she isn’t who she appears to be. He reaches out to her and thus begins a friendship that becomes sadder in light of the later films (If there’s one thing to say about prequels that are done well, it’s that they suddenly add a new context that wasn’t there before).
Once we skip ahead a few years, one small boy has grown up to be a Nazi hunter in the swinging sixties, while the other has become an expert in genetics. They don’t know each other yet, but they will soon enough.
Much has been made over the years of the relationship between Professor X and Magneto. They’re essentially fighting for the same cause, but with vastly different ideologies. It’s not hard (And I certainly wouldn’t be the first person) to draw parallels between them and Martin Luther King/Malcom X. Magneto is so full of rage that he lets the Nazi ideology creep through a little more than he suspects, whereas Professor X is short sighted enough to believe that the World will just accept them as they are, yet he doesn’t allow his friend Raven (Later to be Mystique) to ever show her natural form.
It’s worth noting that the leads of the film are terrific. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are so good in their roles, and in their scenes together that it’s a shame the film has to split them up by the end. I get the need to do it, there’s no way a studio would release the film without those pieces put in place, but it’s still a huge shame when it happens. Only because of the chemistry between the two. Jennifer Lawrence also makes an impression as Raven/Mystique, similarly her scenes with McAvoy are so good that you just want more of them. There’s an uneasy flirtation between the two characters that both actors play just right. Bacon has less to do as the villain but he’s Kevin Bacon so you know he’s going to make the most of it.
Sadly the film isn’t perfect, and it’s with the peripheral characters that the film suffers the most. Of all of them Nicholas Hoult (The boy in uh…About a Boy) makes the best impression. His budding romance with Raven is genuinely sweet, though his accent does happen to waver once or twice. January Jones of Mad Men fame has come under fire for her…subdued portrayal of Emma Frost. Though I think it’s a little undeserved. I got the impression that her acting choices were deliberate, plus she’s hampered with a script that largely asks her to do nothing of note except be eye candy. The rest of the cast are barely able to make much of an impression. As a result there’s a loss that barely registers, and a betrayal that makes little sense since we know literally nothing about the character involved. There’s also, unfortunately, some groan worthy moments that seem studio mandated, demanding answers to questions no one really cared about.
All that aside it’s still something worth seeing. It’s a summer movie that largely doesn’t pander (With some glaring exceptions) and deals with bigger themes than what we’re used to in our Cinemas this time of the year. Here’s to the second class.