Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
Director: Matthew Vaughan
Relase Date: 1 June 2011
Matt C: While X-Men: First Class is, at its heart, the story of two men (Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr) the story behind the film is also a story of two men. Two men with some unfinished business. The first is Bryan Singer, who kickstarted the current trend of superhero blockbusters with the original X-Men movie in 2000 and then directed one of the best films in the genre with X2. When he decided to pursue Superman Returns during downtime between the second and third X-Men films, 20th Century Fox were less than pleased, dropping him from the series and allegedly having security guards escort him off the Fox lot (only to let him back in as he was directing an episode of House!). This eventually led to Brett Ratner taking the reigns for X-Men: The Last Stand and the results were, shall we say, less than stellar. In between Singer and Ratner though, Matthew Vaughan was contracted for the directorial gig off the back of the praise for his debut feature, Layer Cake. He bailed shortly before production commenced however, leaving the door open for Ratner. The old standby 'personal reasons' was cited, but it eventually transpired he wasn't convinced he had the time (just over a year) to get the film to the screen in good shape.
So now we find both guys back on board (Vaughan as director, Singer as producer) and the question that you find yourself asking is: why? Fox booted Singer out of the franchise while Vaughan didn't want to get involved in a big budget movie with such a short time frame to get it to the screen (and for First Class there was even less production time available). So what changed? Sure, Vaughan is probably more confident having a few more movies under his belt (particularly the excellent superhero comedy, Kick-Ass) but personally I took his (and Singer's) signing on the dotted line as an indication that Fox has learnt from its mistakes (Last Stand and the misjudged X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and realised if you hire some talented folk you have to trust them to do their thing and not put numerous obstacles in their way. First Class seems to bear that theory out because, while it's not the best in the series (X2 still retains that accolade), it is a monumental return to form that sees the franchise reposition itself as the premiere superhero property originating from a Marvel comic book.
It gets so many things right. Setting it in the early '60s is the first masterstroke, as not only does that place it firmly in the era when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were on their unstoppable creative streak, but it also gives Vaughan the opportunity to scratch that Bond itch. He's professed interest in that series before but here it's almost like he has his cake and eats it. There's a definite '60s 007 vibe all the way through, especially in the scenes where Fassbender (who almost looks like his auditioning for the role of Bond half the time) is hopping around the globe on his Nazi hunting mission. There are other stylistic choices popular in movies of that era (split screens, montages) and, along with the impressive production design, it’s very effective in giving First Class its own identity. Obviously it adheres - more or less - to continuity already established (in the first two movies anyway - you get the impression they're ignoring certain aspects from Last Stand and Wolverine) but it never feels like it's trapped in the shadow of Singer’s films. The references to what's come before (or what's to come, chronologically speaking) are subtle enough for the most part though and the icing on the cake is a supremely vulgar cameo that's as hilarious as it is unexpected.
The second thing it gets really right is the casting of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. There are lot of other great actors and actresses giving it their all in First Class but it's McAvoy and Fassbender that make a major impact. Neither of them try to emulate Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, instead they fully inhabit the characters, making them their own, and the friendship that develops around their clash of ideologies is believable and affecting. Because they both take their roles seriously it becomes easy for the audience to take the movie seriously, even when it travels down more outlandish, comic book avenues. When they're interacting on screen there’s a definite electrical charge in the air, and it's a pairing that warrants further exploration.
The third masterstroke is tying the whole plot up with an actual historical event, in this instance the Cuban Missile Crisis. It may necessarily simplify this complex and almost catastrophic incident when the world came as close as it ever has to the brink of nuclear war, but it increases the stakes substantially, and even though we (sort of) know how things will turn out it allows for some grand spectacle as the film reaches its climax. Vaughan provides some gripping action sequences throughout the movie, each one larger than before, so when we finally get the Russians and Americans in standoff mode it's probably the most ambitious set piece the series has seen yet.
Vaughan and Singer have reinvigorated a floundering franchise by going back to its roots to provide blockbusting action mixed with strong character drama, anchored by some superb performances. The highest praise I can give it is that, even with a running time of over two hours, it left me eager for more as the end credits rolled. It may play fast and loose with comics continuity, but even the most die-hard of X-fans are unlikely to feel aggrieved when presented with a film that's as bold, smart, funny, gripping and, most of all, entertaining as this one. X marks the spot once again. 9/10