X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Two young mutants, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, join forces while trying to defeat a man who’s hell-bent on starting World War Three…

Get used to multiples names…
* In this prequel to the X-Men trilogy, which is mostly set in 1962, Charles Xavier aka Professor X is a 24-year-old academic and telepath. He’s played by James McAvoy, who does a decent job of evoking the spirit of Patrick Stewart’s performance without resorting to an impression. (He also has hair: there are two separate jokes about him losing it.)
* Charles’s childhood pal Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is a shapeshifter. Her subplot is about how she feels ashamed by her blue skin, so she hides as a “normal”-looking woman. A colleague who fancies her tells her to take medication that will keep her looking Caucasian, explaining that her natural appearance will never be considered attractive. Oh, come on. Jennifer Lawrence painted blue is still sexier than most people not painted blue.
* The young version of Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto is played by Michael Fassbender, who’s doing a James Bond audition until the character goes a bit loopy and turns evil. As with McAvoy and Patrick Stewart, you easily sense Ian McKellen lurking behind the eyes here. (During the action climax, though, Fassbender’s Irish accent becomes very apparent – was there not the time to fix it with an ADR session?)
* The chief villain is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant who wants to provoke the US and the Soviet Union into nuclear war. He has a few hangers-on: Emma Frost (played appallingly by a lifeless January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and Janos Quested aka Riptide (Álex González).
* Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is a young CIA agent who helps Charles, as well as sharing an attraction with him. She’s the wrong age, given that we saw her in her 30s in X-Men: The Last Stand… but she also strips down to her underwear in her first scene, so swings and roundabouts. Her boss is a CIA guy who doesn’t get named for some reason (played by Oliver Platt).
* Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) is an engineering genius who joins the team of good guys and is attracted to Raven. He injects himself with a mutant ‘cure’, but just ends up making his mutation more pronounced. Hashtag dramatic irony.
* In a joyful montage of Charles and Erik recruiting young mutants to their cause, we meet Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Armando Muñoz aka Darwin (Edi Gathegi), Alex Summers aka Havok (Lucas Till) and Sean Cassidy aka Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones).
* Michael Ironside, credited as M. Ironside for some reason, plays a US Navy captain.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that are contradicted or expanded in other movies.
* Moira’s age (the actress was 32) doesn’t tally with her being clearly no more than 40 in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), which is set four decades later.
* The original movie trilogy had no hint that Charles and Raven were childhood buddies.
* Emma Frost had been in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), though this is a brand-new take on the character.
* There’s a CIA agent called Stryker and there’s mention of his son, William – ie, the villain we’ve previously seen in X2 (2003) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
* Alex Summers is the brother of Scott Summers, a character seen in X-Men (2000), X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
* In the recruitment montage, Hugh Jackman has an uncredited cameo as Wolverine (a moment possible because the character doesn’t age). Charles and Erik find him sat in a bar and start their pitch, but he just tells them to go fuck themselves. It’s the biggest laugh in the movie.
* In a scene where Raven is flirting with Erik, he says, “Maybe in a few years…” So she morphs into a more mature version of herself – cutely played by Rebecca Romijn, the actress who played the character in the original trilogy.

Review: What fun. This is fast, breezy and confident – a superhero film with heart, laughs and momentum. Though the film is directed by Matthew Vaughn, the fact Bryan Singer returned to the series as producer and storyliner (having been away making Superman Returns amongst other jobs) must be significant. We’re back to the character-based storytelling Singer used so well in X-Men and X2. Themes and plots are delivered via character dialogue, intrigue, slices of genuine history, jokes and action beats. But Vaughn’s contribution is clearly important too. It’s a well-cast film (mostly), and there’s real panache on show. Directorial flourishes include a sudden switch of POV during the first Erik/Sebastian scene, good use of reflections, expressionist framings and even some split-screens. There’s also a lovely sense of period. It’s almost like watching a Bond film from the 60s: effortless cool and swagger, helped by fine incidental music and gorgeous design. But there is one nagging problem. Is the 1960s-ness being used to justify a fair amount of sexism? Raven’s neuroses are about her feminine appearance; Emma flounces around half-naked; Moira strips down to her underwear to pose as an escort; while Angel is a sex worker who defects to the bad guys on a whim. Perhaps the filmmakers would argue these things are in keeping with the old-school tone, but it’s still a disappointment – especially when actors as talented as Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence are in the cast. Notwithstanding that issue, the movie does wow. Most impressively it strikes precisely the right balance between taking the story seriously and having some fun with it. There’s a great scene, for example, where the younger mutants joke about how they should all have secret codenames. Comedy, plotting, character information and comic-book conventions are all being serviced at the same time. Tremendous.

Nine Radcliffe Cameras out of 10

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