'X-Men' has been saved. It never quite reached the painful lows of the 'Batman' franchise under the misdirection of Joel Schumacher, but after the last two distinctly average outings, the franchise faced an uncertain future. Not anymore: X-Men has been restored to its former glory. 'X-Men: First Class' is to X-Men what 'Casino Royale' was to James Bond - rejuvenation.
The film occupies the perfect spot between fan service and accessibility. There are things that long-time X-Men fans will recognise and appreciate, and for them these geek snippets will enhance the overall experience. However, these references are never laboured. Blink and you’ll miss them. Newcomers never feel as though they are outsiders - this is the perfect jumping-on point.
Forget 2009's 'Wolverine' – this should have been called 'X-Men Origins', because that’s exactly what it is. It is about a young Charles Xavier and his fascination with human evolution. It is about young Erik Lehnsherr and his desire to avenge the death of his family in the Holocaust. This is the story of how they become Professor X and Magneto.
It’s not about super powers. There are a lot of them, but that’s not the point of the film. The focus is primarily on the characters. They’re not superheroes and supervillians just yet, they’re just people, trying to deal with mutations – which is far more interesting than explosions and fights.
The mutants have differing attitudes towards their ‘gifts’. Some are proud while others are ashamed. There is a sense that these mutations really affect the lives of some characters. Mystique, seen in previous films as a sassy and confident shapeshifter, is revealed to be sensitive and highly insecure. The mutants are much less one-dimensional and, as a result, more real.
The depth of these characters is complimented by the outstanding acting. Michael Fassbender is sublime. There have been comments about his Bond-like performance and while this is true, it is a gross oversimplification of his character. He perfectly straddles the line between good and evil, between rage and serenity. His performance has such depth that it is easier to empathise with him than to condemn him for his crimes.
Look past his bitterness and violence, and it is possible to see a confused, tortured soul simultaneously seeking peace and vengeance. Fassbender’s Magneto is an interesting character, so impressively portrayed that it actually makes Ian McKellen seem dull by comparison.
James McAvoy does a great job as a naïve, arrogant version of Charles Xavier. His character is not as interesting as Fassbender’s, but that has more to do with Matthew Vaughn’s decision to focus on Magneto’s development. Nonetheless, McAvoy and Fassbender have great chemistry, resulting in a double-act reminiscent of 'Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid'.
Their performances are strong enough to cover up the weaker acting, most notably from January Jones, who is wooden and vacant. She relies greatly on her revealing costumes, but they fail to distract from the fact that she blinks more than she acts.
With a well-written story and impressive lead acting, 'First Class' is an excellent film in its own right. However, it is praiseworthy that Matthew Vaughn has managed to make a film of this quality that also ties in with the pre-existing films. The X-Men franchise could end here, with this instalment as a perfect background for Bryan Singer’s ‘future’ efforts.
Alternatively it could carry on, and, judging by the strength of this one, nobody would complain. Very rarely does a follow-up challenge its predecessors in terms of quality or intrigue, but 'First Class' is such a film. In fact, it may be the best 'X-Men' yet.
'X-Men: First Class' is on wide release throughout UK cinemas now.