The sci-fi action series featuring the Marvel Comics mutants took a dip with its last two outings, 2006’s sprawling X-Men: Last Stand and 2009’s scrappy Wolverine spin-off, but X-Men: First Class lives up to its title. Smart and spectacular, it’s up there in the top rank of superhero films.
New director Matthew Vaughn and producer Bryan Singer (helmer, of course, of the first two films) have steered the franchise back on course by going back to the beginning. It’s the right move. Last Stand’s climax saw the filmmakers killing off major characters with fearless abandon, so it makes sense that the series should now go for an origins story that shows how the mutants got to become X-Men.
The film’s emotional core is the relationship between the two pivotal figures in the X-Men universe: Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, the characters who will grow up to become Professor X and Magneto. We know them as enemies. Here they are friends and allies. The story arc for X-Men: First Class shows how the seeds of their future enmity are sown, beginning with crucial scenes from their respective childhoods.
In a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, young inmate Erik Lensherr discovers his ability to bend metal by violently buckling the camp gate which separates him from his parents (a reprise of the scene that began the first X-Men movie). Fatefully, the feat attracts the attention of sadistic Nazi doctor Schmidt, who will stop at nothing to exploit the boy’s strange power.
Over in New York State, in the very different setting of a Westchester County mansion, privileged Charles Xavier is already aware of his gift for telepathy but learns that he is not the only youngster with mutant abilities when he surprises shape-shifting interloper Raven in his kitchen.
The story then jumps two decades to the early 1960s, the era in which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first devised the X-Men comic-book series. Xavier (James McAvoy) is now a smoothly confident young Oxford academic, chatting up girls in local pubs with polished bons mots about Darwinian evolution and human mutation.
Erik (Michael Fassbender), meanwhile, has become an anguished avenger, remorselessly tracking down his former Nazi tormentors. ‘Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s monster,’ he says to one quarry, cornered in an Argentine bolthole. ‘I’m looking for my creator.’
His Dr Frankenstein is the erstwhile Dr Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), who has somehow acquired mutant superpowers of his own (the film is a bit fuzzy on this point). Now going by the name Sebastian Shaw, he is seeking to provoke nuclear war between America and Russia so that the newly emerging race of mutants (‘children of the atom’) can inherit a post-apocalyptic Earth.
As global tension mounts (we are approaching October 1962, the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis), chipper CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) seeks out Xavier and asks for his help. He in turn sets about recruiting fellow mutants to the CIA’s new Division X, the first class of X-Men, including Nicholas Hoult’s geeky scientist Hank (the future Beast), Lucas Till’s cosmic energy master-blaster Havok, Caleb Landry Jones’s sonic screecher Banshee, and Xavier’s childhood friend Raven, soon to be Mystique (played by Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence).
That’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters for a single film to handle, but Vaughn and his co-writers (including Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman) prove emphatically that they’re up to the job. Adeptly juggling the film’s separate narrative strands, they manage to introduce the various mutants and their powers without losing sight of the overarching story (a feat that sometimes eluded their predecessors). The result is a well-paced adventure that delivers excitement, humour and pathos, and which steadily builds momentum between the set-piece action scenes without getting unduly sidetracked along the way.
The casting is spot on, too. McAvoy’s Xavier is suave, self-possessed and witty, even a little bit mischievous; the gravitas (and hair loss) of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X lies some way off in the future. Nor is Fassbender’s Erik simply a junior version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto. He’s an action man, albeit one emotionally scarred by his past. Sound familiar? Fassbender pulls off the derring-do with such panache that he could be laying down his calling card for consideration as a future James Bond, in case Daniel Craig feels tempted any time soon to hang up his tuxedo and shoulder holster.
The Bond vibe is hardly coincidental. With its early-1960s Cold-War setting, megalomaniac villain and lissome babes in (slightly anachronistic) mini-skirts, X-Men: First Class could, in places, pass for a Connery-era 007 spy thriller. Adding to the period feel, the presence of January Jones as Emma Frost, Shaw’s icy, voluptuous right-hand woman will cheer Mad Men fans.
Vaughn and his collaborators don’t forget, though, that they’re making an X-Men movie. But their attitude to the Marvel Comics source is both respectful and playful, as you can see from at least one geek-pleasing cameo. Look out, during the whistle-stop scenes of Xaxier and Erik recruiting mutants to their cause, for the crowd-pleasing moment in which they encounter a familiar bewhiskered figure who sends them packing with a blunt three word dismissal that gets the film’s biggest laugh.
X-Men: First Class on general release from 1st June.