Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
The X-Men as a concept is cinematic gold. Not only are they colourful, plentiful and beautiful (in a freaky mutant kinda way) but the central theme is one of acceptance, both by society and by one's self. There is always much to connect with in these characters as they live through the same struggles as many people do in their daily lives (in a freaky mutant kinda way). The first three movies were hugely successful (though the third one was panned by critics) and I think a huge amount of their success can be attributed to the Capraesque qualities of the stories; the little guy's struggle to belong and to overcome the authorities in order to gain acceptance. The political struggle which made up so much of these films is complex and universal. It is here where the first three succeed and I think it is here where the prequel First Class fails.
X-Men: First Class tells the origin story of Professor X and Magneto, played in the original films by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan respectively and played in this film by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. As they fight against the evil Sebastian Shaw who is trying to prompt the Cuban Missile Crisis in a preposterous plot device that instantly lost me before any of the other nonsense even started to bug me, Charles and Eric (who will later become Professor X and Magneto) set about finding other mutants and banding together to form a super team to help the CIA track down and stop Shaw, former Nazi collaborator and murderer of Magneto's mother. However, Shaw already has his own mutants fighting his corner in the form of Emma Frost, a telepath who can also turn to diamond and distract warm-blooded men with her killer bod and the fact that she wears her underwear as outerwear, and Azazel a red-skinned fellow who can create and control mini tornados.
The good mutant-bad mutant dynamic is tons of fun. The mutant powers, the celebration of their skills, and the chemistry between the cast all makes for an enjoyable blockbuster. Not to mention the ingenious setting of the film in the 1960s which creates all kinds of aesthetic delights. Director Matthew Vaughn takes full advantage of this conceit and the visuals are stunning, and the first hour feels like an unfortunately non-existent episode of Mad Men where Betty Draper moonlights as a night-club vixen! The characters are colourful, the young cast are exciting and everything is going swimmingly until...that's right, the messy third act.
The third act sees all the fun drain from the film and not only that but it becomes a very cheesy bromance between Charles and Eric as X tries to convince Eric to curb his vengeance-seeking and find inner peace so that he may use his powers for good and not cross to the dark side. Of course, since we know how it all ends up, the rather done-to-death pep talks not only make us think Prof X is a bit of a know it all, but also bores us to tears and ruins all the fun we were having in the first half.
Another major problem with the film is the banging home of a lot of the issues that have already been very aptly covered in the first films. The mutants struggle with how they see themselves, and with fears of how the world will react to them once they come out of hiding. This kind of "Dawson'-Creekery" detracts from the sweetness of the developing relationships and feels, to me at least, like a cheap way of injecting some depth to proceedings. Depth is unnecessary when you're having so much fun, just look at the first Spiderman movie, simple but perfect!
I do have to point out that the cast was definitely a highlight for me. Rising stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult and Zoe Kravitz are full of energy and charisma that it makes me actually feel excited for the future of Hollywood cinema. More established stars like McAvoy, Rose Byrne and a wonderfully villainous Kevin Bacon also work really well in their roles. Universal praise has been lavished upon Michael Fassbender but his ever evolving series of accents (seriously, he was a full-blown Kerryman by the end!) were extremely distracting and it also has to be said that it's difficult to go wrong with a character that intricate.
One of cinema's greatest tragedies is a film that starts off well and has the makings of a classic but for some reason, usually bad writing, veers wildly off course in the second half. That was what upset me about this film. The writers got so caught up in the overly complicated plot that they forgot about the fun and for all their effort, still came out with a messy endgame. That being said, it is by no means a terrible addition to the Marvel Studios oeuvre, it was just like a date that wouldn't put out...got me all excited but sent me home with slumped shoulders!
- Charlene Lydon