Having eradicated any mystery surrounding its greatest asset, the Adamantium-reinforced hairstyle Wolverine, the X-Men franchise has now turned its attention to mining the relationship between the heads of the mutant fractions, Magneto and Professor Xavier. Essentially, Marvel prequel X-Men: First Class is a 1960s-set mutant bromance.
In 1944, in German-occupied Poland, young Erik Lehnsherr bends a metal gate with his mutant abilities when his mother is taken from him by Nazis. His magnetism catches the eye of scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who brutally awakens the soon-to-be Magneto’s abilities, creating a forceful archenemy.
Skip to 1962 and twenty-something mutant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), complete with full head of hair, is celebrating graduating by wooing girls with his mindreading abilities and knowledge of mutant lore. It’s almost as if he knows his cool days are numbered. Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), meanwhile, is location hopping, suaving people to death in a Bond-like trail of revenge as he seeks out his ‘maker’, Shaw.
When CIA agent Moira (Rose Byrne, Get Him to the Greek) stumbles upon Shaw’s Hellfire Club, an elite band of mutants bent on heating up the Cold War, she enlists Xavier to help her convince the government that mutants exist. Xavier swiftly puts his college days behind him to join her with foster sister Raven in tow, the occasionally blue shape shifter ‘Mystique’ (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone).
With the use of Cerebro, a machine that focuses his telepathic abilities, Xavier begins to recruit his own band of mutants, starting with Lehnsherr, AKA Magneto, his soon-to-be arch-nemesis. But can any amount of split screen training montages help Professor X’s fledgling school of mutants stop Shaw from enabling humans to obliterate each other, when half of them think they deserve it?
At the heart of X-Men: First Class lies the doomed relationship between Xavier and Magneto. Magneto’s power was born of pain, Xavier’s of privilege. Yet despite their differing beliefs, the film paints a believable picture of blossoming friendship based on mutual respect. It’s hard to hide a soft centre from someone who can read your innermost thoughts, yet the pair’s scenes together brim with humour, and are touching without being schmaltzy.
Writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz worked on Marvel Comic’s Thor together, so they’re no strangers to superhero adaptations. While the same self-aware wit is present, First Class doesn’t lose marks with the same pitfall reliance on squeaky-clean CGI sets or glut of hammy characters. Perhaps because Kick Ass script scribe Jane Goldman is on hand to tighten the package with her quick fire dialogue and unabashed violence.
Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn has managed to build on the world first deftly brought to screen by Brian Singer, who is back on board as producer. Despite featuring teenagers prone to mutating into hairy blue beasts, he’s somehow kept the Marvel universe down-to-earth and believable. It’s the angst he’s interested in, and not just the damage it results in.
A respectable crop of acting talent also helps. Brit Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, Skins) pulls off an excellent yank accent as the troubled scientist with opposable toes, Hank McCoy. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough. January Jones (Mad Men) utilises the ‘60s setting to valiantly pour herself into the increasingly tight white outfits worn by villainess Emma Frost, a diamond-encrusted telepath.
Some characters are underused and underdeveloped. Byrne’s beautiful CIA agent is relegated to simply being a useful plot device and the film barely chips the surface of Frost’s glittering exterior. These are minor complaints, however, as Vaughn’s focus is firmly on a select number of mutants whose abilities he can exploit to the max with his frequent, well-executed and breathtaking action scenes.
Those that do get the limelight, bask. Fassbender excels as the damaged Magneto. He blazes a trail from one end of the film to the other as Frankenstein’s monster wanting words with his creator. Yes this point is hammered home, but this doesn’t stop Fassbender allowing the audience a glimpse into Magneto’s pitted heart and teasing them with the possibility of the magnetic one’s redemption.
If Magneto’s foible is a tendency to try to destroy the human race, Professor X is too eager to please them. McAvoy’s Professor X isn’t the virtuous wheelchair-bound figure of his later years; his ‘can’t we all just get along’ philosophy has xenophobic origins. Under Vaughn’s direction, McAvoy never needs to spell it out – it’s written in his stoic, unyielding countenance. And the relationship he isn’t having with his jilted, blue best friend.
Bacon’s energy-absorbing mutant Shaw is spot on as the smug villain of the piece, although not even he can rock that helmet. Shaw might not get the finale he deserves, but that’s because Vaughn is always steering the focus back to bringing a satisfying end to his leading duo’s partnership.
Vaughn has successfully brought the X-Men franchise back to life. First Class is a blast – a well-paced action flick that’s grounded by the magnificent performances of its leads. X-Men: First Class – it’s all in the name.