Review: ‘X-Men: First Class’

Just realised I hadn’t posted a movie review in a while. And this was a good one! As always, originally posted on iafrica.com.

Finally! A shining beacon of light in a movie season of bad sequels and pointless remakes!

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War – and eventually the Cuban Missile Crisis – X-Men: First Class looks back at the early days of the mutant storyline. We’re first introduced to telepath Charles Xavier and Polish Jew Erik Lehnsherr, who can manipulate magnetic fields, as boys in the later days of World War II.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

Charles grows up in a rich home, convinced that he’s a freak of nature and the only one of his kind. He meets shape-shifter Raven (who later becomes Mystique) and the two forge a close foster-sibling relationship. Meanwhile, Erik suffers at the hands of the Nazis as they try to rein in his unique ability.

Flash forward twenty years to the early 1960s. The CIA are hot on the heels of Communist sympathiser Sebastian Shaw – but when it transpires that he and his accomplices have unique abilities, the CIA drafts in the leading expert in human mutation – Charles Xavier. Charles and Erik share a common enemy in Shaw, and together they team up to draft a small army of mutants to fight Shaw and his companions.

A human story

First Class is a wonderful blockbuster film, effortlessly blending massive special effects and thumping action sequences with a distinctly human element that makes it all the more engaging. It’s an extremely moving film – although it does hover on the edge of being overly sentimental at times – and is driven by a smart, witty script laced with clever and cheeky references (“You didn’t ask, I didn’t tell” provoked a great chuckle from the audience).

But it’s the performances that make this film so successful. Yes, First Class is a thumping action film – but at its heart it’s a human story, driven by its characters and their need for acceptance. Central to the film is the fascinating relationship between Charles and Erik – and these two leads provide sterling performances.

James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) brings the quiet nobility and inner strength expected of Charles Xavier. But this is a younger Charles, one who tries to pick up girls using a pre-prepared chat-up speech and celebrates his graduation by downing a yard of ale at a pub. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre) simmers with rage and a chilling sense of pragmatism as Erik. It’s remarkable how these two channel the older selves portrayed by Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) – their transformation into these giants is easily believable.

The young ensemble cast is led by a marvellous performance by Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven. A long way away from her Mystique days, Raven has low self-esteem and is fragile and innocent. Former child star Nicholas Hoult is a deliciously awkward Hank McCoy, who later transforms into Beast; while Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee), Lucas Till (Havok) and Zoe Kravits (Angel) round out a solid (but shallow) supporting cast.

One of the low points of this film (and yes, there are a few) is the team of villains led by Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s Shaw is a bizarre fit. He seems to be trying to emulate Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa – completely over-the-top and pure evil – but he comes across as more of an Austin Powers. January Jones, who plays his right-hand woman Emma Frost, is great eye-candy but little else. She looks marvellous in the sixties-inspired fashion, more of a Bond girl than a bad girl, but she’s really too shallow to bring anything else to the table.

It’s all groovy, baby

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) has a wonderful feel for pacing, with the film neatly straddling the line between being hurried and being an adrenaline rush. First Class kicks off at a blistering speed and we jump between locations and languages at a dizzying rate. At first it seems a little disorientating, as well as frustrating, but you soon forget about it in the dash to the next location, the next adventure.

It’s a wonderfully styled film, capturing war rooms and battleships just as intimately as Charles’ university rooms and what eventually becomes the school. Vaughn manages to capture the campy, sexy feel of the 1960s through his choices of fashion and location, although there are times where it starts to feel a little more like a parody of itself. (Austin Powers has ruined “groovy” forever).

And be on the lookout for one of the best character cameos of all time. (I’m not giving it away, I’ve already been yelled). But it’s guaranteed to have the audience in stitches – our group was still giggling well after the scene had changed.

The special effects – for the most part – are phenomenal. We watch as Erik manipulates a yacht’s anchor to tear the vessel apart. Havok’s energy rings are blinding and Angel’s dragonfly wings are exquisite. But unfortunately some of the character transformations – when Emma Frost morphs into her diamond form and Hank becomes Beast – that are a little weak. The CGI here seems quite lazy – as if they hadn’t made the final jump into the finished product. Beast in particular could have done with a little more polish – he seems too computer-generated.

There are also a few extremely cheesy moments scripted in – the last few speeches are likely to have you reaching for your sick-bag – but it’s all forgiven by the end, when all I wanted was to see what happened next. And that is the mark of a great film. It’s a massively entertaining popcorn blockbuster that will thrill both the fans and the indifferent.

X-Men: First Class is a wonderful rejuvenation of the franchise – and will stand out as one of the best blockbuster films of the year. Get thee to a cinema, it’s a must-see.

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