It takes some gumption to title your film First Class, but that’s exactly what Matthew Vaughn has delivered with his dynamite X-Men prequel. This sleek 60s period piece – which involves some of the characters but (almost) none of the actors from the previous films – is a real piece of quality work, and a breath of fresh air after the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine.
The film begins in a WWII Polish concentration camp, as a young Erik Lehnsherr displays magnetic mutant abilities after being separated from his mother; later, he’s put to a cruel test by a Nazi doctor (Kevin Bacon) interested in exploiting his mutation. Meanwhile, in New York, a young Charles Xavier discovers a shapeshifting mutant named Raven searching for food in his mansion home.
Eighteen years later, Lehnsherr (now played by Michael Fassbender) is a Nazi hunter scouring Switzerland and Argentina for the Nazi doctor and disposing of anyone who gets in his way. When he finds the doc, now Sebastian Shaw, a businessman manipulating Russian and US forces in the days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he also finds a group of mutants more powerful than he.
But he’s also introduced to Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who have been recruited by the CIA and agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) after MacTaggert inadvertently witnessed mutant activity in the presence of Shaw.
Lehnsherr, Xavier, and Raven – who will eventually become known as Magneto, Professor X, and Mystique, respectively – join forces to recruit a group of young mutants including Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz).
Their goal: to stop Shaw before he can start WWIII. Shaw isn’t alone, either, assisted by a mutant crew that includes Emma Frost (January Jones), Riptide (Álex González), and Azazel (Jason Flemyng).
Despite a length of 132-minutes, the film flies by; the lightning-quick pacing, globetrotting adventure, and stylish 60s atmosphere suggest an early James Bond film or taut espionage thriller rather than a now-routine comic book adaptation. Until the very end, the film is also without a big action setpiece – highly unusual for a summer blockbuster, though the f/x crew has plenty to work with given the diverse mutant abilities glimpsed throughout the film.
But this isn’t campy Marvel goodness like Iron Man or Thor, nor does it explore the dark territory of the Burton or Nolan Batmans; it’s a precise and exacting mutant parable, replacing the gay subtext of Bryan Singer’s first two films with the Holocaust and Cold War atomic paranoia (with a dash of racial segregation thrown in for good measure). Like Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, it’s one of the more realistic comic book films you’re likely to see; unlike that film, it should be considerably less divisive, pleasing critics and audiences alike.
Casting McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, Atonement) and Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) – rising stars, but by no means box office draws – in the leading roles was a sign that Vaughn was more interested in quality acting than selling tickets. The actors reward Vaughn with the film’s greatest asset, atypically (for the genre) deep and engaging performances; they command the screen whenever they’re on it and leave the otherwise fine supporting cast in the dust.
First Class also describes the production, with elegant 2.35:1 cinematography by John Mathieson and evocative 60s production design by Chris Seagers. Kinetic soundtrack by Henry Jackman may not seem like much by itself, but it gets the blood pumping when necessary.
Diehard fans may be put off by continuity issues between First Class and the other films and comics (timelines don’t seem to match up with the previous entries, and characters tend to die when they shouldn’t – though we all know a comic book character is rarely dead for good), but they’ll also be greeted by a number of Easter Eggs, including the throwback costuming, blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em appearances by other mutants in the Cerebro sequence, and the wink-wink appearance of an older Mystique (beware: minor spoiler in next paragraph).
Best of all is the Hugh Jackman Wolverine cameo; despite lasting all of three seconds, it brought down the house at my press screening. ‘Nuff said.
Director Vaughn has had a great run of solid features (from Layer Cake to Stardust to Kick-Ass and now the X-Men prequel), and he seems to be getting better with each outing. Still, there’s something of a disjointed feel to most of his work (excepting Kick-Ass) that prevents the films from reaching true greatness; that is, becoming greater than the sum of their parts. But when the parts are as good as X-Men: First Class, I’m not complaining.