X-men: First Class is a lot more fun than the fifth film in a decade-long franchise has any right to be. For fans who were disappointed by the lacklustre X-Men: Last Stand and the ludicrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, director Matthew Vaughn’s immensely clever, action packed prequel is a reassuring reminder that there’s life in the franchise yet.
X-Men: First Class is essentially an origins story about the complex relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, before they became Professor X and Magneto, the leaders of opposing mutant factions with vastly different ideologies.
Their own origins could not be more different. While the telepathic Charles grows up in a warm bubble of wealth and privilege, Erik’s story begins in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. There, his mutant power – the telekinetic manipulation of metal – is unlocked when he witnesses the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of Nazi doctor and fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
The compassionate Charles (James McEvoy) and the militant Erik (Michael Fassbender) finally cross paths in the 1960s when they are both recruited by the CIA to capture Shaw, whose mutant power to absorb and use kinetic energy has kept him eternally young and immensely powerful.
Leading a team of young mutants, they must thwart Shaw’s attempts to provoke a Soviet attack on US soil and start a nuclear war. Shaw believes that a missile strike will eradicate human life while leaving mutants, as “children of the atom”, unharmed.
Vaughn has seamlessly merged the mythology of the 1960s comic book with human history to excellent effect. The inclusion of historical details, such as JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis address, makes for fascinating viewing, and a more restrained and effective portrayal of the era than the usual montage of gogo boots and flower children.
The two leads give brilliant performances, particularly Fassbender as the damaged mutant hell bent on revenge. In the earlier films, Ian McKellen portrayed Magneto as a clear-cut villain. Here, Fassbender’s moments of compassion, his inner turmoil and the impossible struggle to rectify his past make it difficult to condemn Erik completely. As do Fassbender’s sparkling blue eyes.
The film is not entirely without flaws. Bacon is a chilling villain, but the evil mutants in his entourage are not in the slightest bit menacing. As telepath Emma Frost, Mad Men’s January Jones gives her usual maddeningly insipid performance and completely wastes the character.
Charles and Erik’s new recruits, including blue-skinned shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and animal-like scientist Beast (Brit actor Nicholas Hoult), are likeable enough but nothing extraordinary. It was a gutsy move by Vaughn to omit the series’ most popular characters from previous films and only time will tell if his gamble will pay off.
Rather brilliantly, Vaughn does include a number of tongue-in-cheek cameos by X-Men alumni; a certain side-burned, Adamantium-clawed motorcyclist hurling expletives at Charles and Erik is definitely a high point of the film.
These cameos are just one of the ways in which Vaughn nods and winks at the fan base, acknowledging their knowledge with thoughtful touches, such as when Charles refuses to have his head shaved; Professor X is famously bald, and played by Patrick Stewart in the earlier films.
All in all, X-men First Class is highly entertaining popcorn fare that is unafraid to present a more complex precedent than simply ‘good versus evil’. The fact that Charles and Erik began on the same side shows how a man’s character is shaped not only by his beliefs, but also by the means he will go to in order to achieve them. It is an origin story worth telling, and Vaughn is a more than worthy storyteller.