Review: X-Men: First Class (12) / Directed by: Matthew Vaughn / Screenplay by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn / Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jason Flemyng, Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Bacon
As the Spring/Summer blockbusters continue their Christmas market DVD/Blu-ray roll-out, no other title deserves a reappraisal more than Matthew Vaughn’s ambitious and explosive reboot of the ‘X-Men’ franchise which appeared to have worn out its welcome after two well-received Bryan Singer movies (’The X-Men’ and ‘X2’), Brett Ratner’s much more derided ‘Last Stand’ and Hugh Jackman’s misfiring vanity project ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine.’ Vaughn, who so nearly helmed ‘Last Stand’ finally gets to play in the mutant sandbox in this slick, clever and atmospheric movie which picks up on the ‘origins’ theme of Jackman’s movie but absolutely nails the story, the relationships and the ethos of the comic strip to create a film which is as likely to satisfy the demands of the aficionados as it’s likely to entertain a less comic book savvy audience who just like watching people in costumes flying about and beating each other up.
‘First Class’ kicks off by recreating the first moments of the first ‘X-Men’ movie as a young Erik Lehnsherr first demonstrates his metal-bending tendencies in a German concentration camp during World War 2. The camp commandant (Kevin Bacon) kills Erik’s mother as he tries to persuade the boy to demonstrate his powers again but escapes when the boy finally lashes out in anger. Erik grows up determined to track down and destroy the man who killed his mother - by the early 1960s the commandant has reinvented himself as a louche Bond-villain type calling himself Sebastian Shaw - while halfway across the world a telepathic young Oxford academic named Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has identified the mutant gene which is developing in young people around the world and sets about trying to gather them together in the face of increasing public and official distrust in this new breed of super humanity. Xavier meets up with Erik during one of his attempts to kill Shaw (who escapes in his submarine with her off ‘Mad Men’ (January Jones) and Xavier and Erik form what’s clearly an uneasy friendship as together they collect and train a wildly-disparate and undisciplined bunch of young mutants (Hugh Jackman‘s cameo is a hoot). But trouble’s brewing as Sebastian Shaw is scheming to rid the world of troublesome human types once and for all, paving the way for the next stage of humanity to take control…
What was initially planned as a low-key, low-budget ‘Twilight’ style ‘X-Men’ focussing on high school hi-jinks and teen romances quickly and thankfully became, with the involvement of Vaughn (and his co-screenwriters including Mrs Jonathan Ross Jane Goldman - and I’m sure she’d thank me for that description), a massive spectacular superhero period piece, a movie which purposefully evokes the spirit of early Bond in its retro fashions and big, spacious sets (the Blu-ray documentary goes to great pains to point out how influential the first couple of Connery Bonds were on the look of ‘First Class’) and yet remains true to the timeline and chronology of the comic books. Whilst the simmering relationship between Xavier and Lehnsherr is the heart and soul of the movie, there’s time and room enough for other characters to get a decent chunk of the action, specifically nervy young mutant Hank McCoy (Hoult) and his fumbling romance with shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Hank’s got big outsized hairy hands for feet and whilst it makes him pretty athletic it’s not a look he’s especially happy with but the vaccine he develops to subliminate the mutant gene just turn him blue and furry, into a creature quickly dubbed Beast by his fellow X-Men.
It’s a brave movie that utilises for its tense climax a real-life historical event which the audience all knows the outcome of - in this case it’s the Cuban missile crisis from 1962, manufactured here by the mind-bending machinations of Seb Shaw - but ‘First Class’ cleverly turns a crisis we’re familiar with into a lavish and breath-taking face-off between two bands of mutants, with the might of the US and Russian navies stuck in the middle. This is where ‘First Class’ is pure, glorious comic strip - the scenes of Russian and American missiles heading towards the beached mutants being manipulated by Erik (who’s now turned to the dark side, having finally offed Shaw) and spun back towards the warships could have been torn from the pages of a 1960s comic book. Even those with only a passing interest in previous ‘X’ antics could scarcely failed to be thrilled by the ending of the film, when Xavier suffers a famous injury and Erik finally turns away from the hand of friendship and disappears into the ether with his own band of mutants, appearing later on to spring the dreary diamond-skinned Emma Frost (Jones) from the slammer, declaring himself now to be known only as ‘Magneto.’
‘X’ fatigue did ‘First Class’ no favours during its cinema release; maybe audiences expected another disappointment and decided not to bother. Much as I enjoyed the film in the cinema it’s only when viewing it again on Blu-ray that I was able to appreciate what an intricate, beautifully-detailed film Vaughn and his conspirators have crafted, a film that’s thoughtful and elegant and yet dynamic and exciting. Packed with great performances (McAvoy is charming and witty as Xavier but this is Fassbender’s movie), a terrific score by Henry (not Hugh) Jackman and astonishing action set pieces, ‘First Class’ lifts ‘X-Men’ from the bottom of the superhero pecking order they’d fallen to and kicks them right back to the top of the tree again. A brilliant and horribly underrated film which deserves to find a proper appreciative audience on this sparkling, diamond-sharp Blu-ray release.
Special features: DVD buyers beware… you just get some deleted scenes. The Blu-ray edition (which includes the DVD version and that always-handy ‘digital copy’) offers more bang for your buck with a fascinating nearly warts-and-all ‘Children of the Atom’ ‘making of’, a composer’s isolated score (whatever that is) and an interactive mutant tracker which is probably a delight left for some other day.
'X Men: First Class' is available now on Blu-ray and DVD