X-Men: First Class

Not only does First Class successfully reboot a dying franchise, it signals a welcome surge in Marvel’s world of superhero films.

Every year a highly anticipated film officially launches the summer action movie fiesta. For 2011, this is it! Look no further, X-Men: First Class has thrown the gates open…wide open.

In almost unaltered history, the film dates back to the early 1960s era of suspense and dread. John F Kennedy is the president of the United States of America and the whole world braces for what is sure to be nuclear Armageddon.  If you are thinking ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, then I have your attention.  However, before the world got to this predicament, we need to go back to the European theatre of World War II. In a concentration camp at Auschwitz, Occupied Poland, young Erik Lehnsherr witnesses his mother’s murder. During this traumatic event and fuelled by anger, Erik unleashes his secret power much to the amazement of the perpetrator, Doctor Sebastian Shaw. Across the Atlantic, a young Charles Xavier discovers powers of his own. Before long, Xavier is a distinguished academic living with the shape-shifting Raven (who would later defect and be called Mystique). Dedicating his life to avenging his mother’s death, Erik Lehnsherr bumps into Charles Xavier, spawning an instant friendship and powerful bond. Together, and with their mutant friends, they are the CIA’s last hope in averting a nuclear crisis that culminates into a spectacular face-off between American and Soviet naval forces.

With all due respect, Mathew Vaughn does a phenomenal job as the director of this prequel. But fans of the Marvel comic book and the X-Men franchise will always look back to Bryan Singer for giving us the first two titles: X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003). In fact, this installment is almost entirely the handy work of Singer, who not only co-wrote the script, but also produced the film. What he did not do was direct the movie, and that was a last moment decision due to pre-committed schedules for filming Jack the Giant Slayer. So, having received the raw materials on a silver platter, all Vaughn had to do was execute it, take for take. In doing so, Vaughn has successfully re-vamped the X-Men franchise with such grandeur, a spin-off trilogy has already found its way to the drawing boards. On the whole, everything works here; from a captivating and intelligent screenplay to exceptional character development to fantastic action sequences. Whether you are a Marvel comic-book fan, X-Men movie fan or an action movie junkie, right from the start, through the 130 minutes to the end, you are sure to be entertained. Visuals are top notch, oozing CGI eye-candy in many scenes.

As a prequel, the script is pure ingenuity and takes us back to a time before Erik and Charles became the archenemies we know them to be. It is also a time when mutants are discovering and practicing their powers in secret. Aside from the mutant origins, embedded in the script is a parallel history relating to the Cuban Missile Crises and birth of the Civil Rights Movement. The ingenuity of this is grafting history with fiction and having the audience accept its plausibility without having to state it as based on actual events. First Class builds on this concept in such a clever way, that the script is studded with historical events. Another aspect of the screenplay also brings to mind a distinct James Bond theme. Maybe it is just the opinion of this reviewer, but chronologically, Bond’s cinematic debut (1960s) is around the same timeframe scripted for this movie. It is left to be seen if Vaughn intended for this as a mild undertone.

Onto star performance, and most notable for his role as the young doctor in The last King of Scotland, James McAvoy is nothing like the Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) we have seen before. McAvoy’s Xavier is drastically different, egotistical, brash, and a flirt on the loose. On the other hand, Michael Fassbender dons Sir Ian McKellan’s suit as Erik Lehnsherr. Like McAvoy, he too “paints a fresh canvas” for the character who would go on to become the ruthless Magneto. Although McAvoy and Fassbender are perfectly cast, I have to say the latter has the edge in terms of drawing you in. Magnetic indeed! In doing so, he never steps on McKellan’s toes, but brings out an unseen side of Erik Lehnsherr. When I mentioned James Bond earlier, I was referring to Fassbender, and for some reason, his character exudes a distinctive MI-6 persona. Another worthy mention goes to Kevin Bacon as the villainous Shaw. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but Bacon’s Shaw plays a key role in bringing the world to the brink of war. Aside from these leads, watch out for a plethora of good contributions from January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Zoë kravitz and loads more as newly discovered mutants, along with a few expected cameos.

For a summer opener, X-Men: First Class does not disappoint. As a prequel, it pushes boundaries, raises the bar and broadens the scope of expanding this franchise. If you have been following the series, you will love First Class. If you haven’t, don’t worry, Vaughn and Singer have successfully re-booted a dying franchise; there will be more to come.

Rating: ★★★★☆



About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.