X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Tired of series at the cinema, of sequels and prequels, franchises and spin-offs? If so, you're not alone. When I first heard the idea of a young X-Men film mooted I was worried that it would, at best, be a diluted version of what had gone before; at worst, like an episode of Saturday Morning Watchmen. I'm glad I chanced it anyway, because this film blows everything else in the series out of the water. It's not only the best X-Men film yet, it's a fantastic piece of cinema in its own right.

We begin in the 1940s. Here are scenes familiar to series fans: a concentration camp, a frightened boy, the bending of the gates. But this time there's more, and it's much darker. It's a proper origin story for Magneto, telling us not just about his special power but about formative influences on his character. It sets the stage for a relentless pursuit by the adult Magneto of those he holds responsible for the fate of his people. There have been real life men walking that path, and Magneto needs abilities far beyond his natural gifts to succeed, but those he is hunting have powers of their own.

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Around this time, a podgy-faced upper-class English boy meets a blue-skinned girl and adopts her as his sister. Flash forward to the Sixties. Charles Xavier is finishing his college thesis, in between sleazing on young women in bars, trying to dazzle them with science. In the background, Mystique is struggling with an identity crisis. She can blend in, can pass for normal, but should she? What is it costing her? Will she ever meet anyone who values her for herself?

Meanwhile, a well-dressed man relaxes on a yacht, Bond-villain style, with January Jones' sultry Emma Frost in kinky boots at his side. He's hatching a plan to take advantage of Cold War tensions and rid the world of his enemies once and for all. Only the X-men, a loose band of untrained individuals without a name, stand in his way.

At its heart this is a Sixties spy thriller. It's shot using period lenses and lighting, with superb design work brilliantly capturing the mood of the time. From split-screen imagery to mirrored rooms to the kitsch prototype of Xavier's thought-amplification machine, everything is perfect. Kevin Bacon is clearly having the time of his life as the villain, hamming it up without hitting a single wrong note. Michael Fassbender gives us a delicious dry yet fragile Magneto, the perfect counterpoint to all this luxury and to the exuberance of the younger mutants. As Xavier, James McAvoy is effortlessly smug, with a slimy similarity to David Cameron, yet just rubbish and earnest enough to be likeable despite it. Jennifer Lawrence excels as Mystique, while Nicholas Hoult makes a charmingly shy Beast. The brief appearance of another familiar mutant is best left as a surprise.

There are a few problems here. Like its series companions, this film struggles from having an overabundance of new characters and many of the younger mutants are not adequately fleshed out. Jones doesn't really have the charisma for her role. There are a few minor plot holes too, though some of the things characters seem to miss can reasonably be put down to their inexperience - nobody pretends they really know what they're doing. The fact the story is structured around the Cuban Missile Crisis means that aspects of it will already be familiar to most viewers, but this is well handled. Archive footage fits in beautifully. With history as with its own canon history, this is a film that deftly manages its references and hardly ever feels forced.

In many ways the plot here takes a back seat, with character development in the foreground, but he film won't let you down when it comes to action. Much of this is filmed using real stunts and models rather than relying on CGI. There are some thrilling set-pieces on a par with the best of the genre. The film really doesn't feel as long as it is; you'll be on the edge of your seat for a lot of it.

All this and a cameo from Michael Ironside too. X-Men: First Class may not be perfect but it far excels what one could reasonably expect from a summer blockbuster, and it will leave viewers hungry for more.

Reviewed on: 01 Jun 2011
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X-Men: First Class packshot
The origins of the X-Men are explained as they struggle to thwart a villain with nuclear ambitions.
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Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writer: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, January Jones

Year: 2011

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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