June 6, 2011


Not one of the official posters but, well
they were rubbish weren't they?
Matthew Vaughn has finally made his Marvel superhero movie, and thank goodness for that. Vaughn was previously attached to X-Men 3 where he was all but set to shoot when he left for "personal reasons". We all know how that turned out: X3 was a steaming pile and Vaughn eventually went on to make the brilliant Kick-Ass. But before that he was also attached to Thor. Yep, the Marvel Norse god superhero movie that came out earlier this year. I believe the version he was attached to involved Asgard more, to the point of being told almost exclusively in that realm. Again, he left the project. And now, finally, he gets to come full circle and tackle the early days of Marvel's uncanny X-Men.

Like most, I'm no big fan of reboots or prequels or prebootquels or whatever the hell you want to call them. Prequels can, by the very nature of telling a story about characters you know from "future" installments, be the trickiest of the bunch. How do you create dramatic tension and tell a compelling story when we already know the end point for these characters' arcs? In the case of Vaughn and his screenwriting companion Jane Goldman, they do so by enlivening the genre in which it is told, by entangling the story of the X-Men into the real world and by bringing it back to that central relationship: that of Charles Xavier and his friend and enemy Erik Lensherr.

X-Men, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was an instrumental film in bringing the superhero into the mainstream. The film itself doesn't really stand up nowadays but back then it was something else. I still think X-Men 2 is one of the finest of the genre and, where most superhero films now focus on one character, the X-Men films have always been about the team; well, Wolverine and the team. But in ditching the feral adamantium-laced wonder and going back to how it all began they have actually managed to open up a whole new raft of story possibilities. And that seems to be one of the best tricks Vaughn and Goldman have pulled off: they acknowledge and respect the films that were made before, but they aren't entirely slavish to the continuity.

X-Men: First Class begins where the first X-Men film does; in fact it re-creates shot for shot the opening with young Erik Lensherr having his family ripped away from him. But First Class then expands on that, introducing us to the villain of the piece: Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw. We're also shown a young Charles Xavier as he discovers the young shapeshifter Raven (the future Mystique) and takes her in. Cut ahead to the early 60's: Erik is a young man consumed by anger and revenge, encircling the globe hunting down Nazis and hunting for Shaw. Just like Nolan worked in his Bond film fetish into Inception, so has Vaughn done here with Michael Fassbender's Erik Lensherr: he's brutal, charming, deadly and just so fucking cool. And what's more, you understand his anger and his need for vengeance: Shaw killed his mother, Shaw tortured and experimented on him for years. Shaw stripped him of his humanity and turned him into a weapon. Life for the young Charles Xavier, however, is vastly different. He's studying genetics at Oxford, but we only see him down the pub drinking and picking up birds with lines about mutation. James McAvoy's Xavier is not the saintly saviour just yet; he is just a young man with naive, arrogant ideas. An annoyingly gifted and charming one who just assumes he's always right, equally at home in the worlds of academia and down the pub. But you can still see his desire to help his fellow mutants, even if he doesn't quite know how yet. An interesting addition to this mix is Jennifer Lawrence's Raven: she's grown up with Charles and followed him to Oxford. She struggles with her natural blue and scaly appearance and her "big brother" Charles is all but oblivious to it. The relationship between these two is one of the finest additions to the X-Men story and casts events in the other X-films in a new light.

Lawrence, McAvoy and Fassbender are, unsurprisingly, perfect and the chemistry between the three of them is different for each pairing (Xavier/Raven, Xavier/Lensherr etc.) but undeniable. Kevin Bacon is relishing his time as the Bond villain with a grand, insane plan to ruuule the world! Mwahahaha! He's creepy and thoroughly menacing. January Jones has less to do, and gives us less (unless you count skin) as the diamond skinned telepath Emma Frost. Getting similarly short shrift are the young mutants that make up that first class; most of them are barely defined past their powers with Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast being the only one to really have some time to shine (which is fine, as Hoult is great as the nervous hyper-intelligent Q of the X-Men). But these kids do give us some of the best bits of the film: Xavier and Lensherr finding them with Cerebro, the kids hanging out and showing off their powers, Xavier and Lensherr training them in the use of their powers. It's a more joyous, liberated feeling given to these gifts than is usually seen in the X-universe. And I'd just like to say, I am incredibly pleased they went with the classic (albeit tweaked) blue and gold uniforms. Those costumes suit this film down to the ground.

The fact that this was all made in 10 months is almost unbelievable but Vaughn and his team have pulled it off. And not only pulled it off, but made one of the best blockbusters of the year. The truncated production/post-production period shows in some places though: some FX work isn’t the best (notably in the flying sequences) and the film is relentlessly plot driven. But they still find time for those all important character moments. In fact, the biggest complaint I have is that I wanted more: I wanted more of Erik hunting Nazis like an angry, charming, super-powered 007. I wanted more of the relationship between Charles and Erik, of just seeing these two future leaders together. I wanted more of the 60’s societal vibe, this being the decade of the civil rights movement and more. There is a dash of that, but it feels more like really great flavouring to events than being a pivotal part of proceedings (the Cuban Missile Crisis aside). I hope the plan is to involve real, society shifting events in a sequel as they move deeper into the fractious decade.

X-Men: First Class marks a big, important step for Vaugh as a director. This is perhaps not as inventive in the action sequences (but they're still great) as his previous Kick-Ass but given the incredible time constraints and huge nature of this canvas, that is something easily forgiven. And that's another great thing: First Class hops around the globe and the central threat involves nothing less than total nuclear armageddon. It's a little bit larger and higher stakes than most other superhero films. Vaughn has managed to revitalise a struggling franchise and bring it back to the central relationship: the teacher Xavier and the leader Magneto. I, for one, am glad the Vaughn left X3; there he would've been telling a continuation and end of a story someone else started. With X-Men: First Class he gets to begin a new one.


  1. Great review. I really enjoyed the film. The best aspect really was the relationship between Xavier and Erik and I could have used a little more of that. And why have the split, Erik's transformation into Magneto, Xavier's accident, etc. in this film at all? We've already had 3 films where they're enemies, why not a few that showcases their friendship first? I'm looking forward to more from this story, however.

  2. Thanks Robert. In an ideal world Fox would've given this a three film greenlight and we would have more of the growing relationship between Erik and Charles before their eventual disagreement and split as i agree this was one of the highlights of the film. My only hope is that, for any sequels, this relationship isn't entirely defined in terms of being adversaries.

  3. Great review Andy and I really enjoyed the film too. xx