Professor X discovers his telepathic powers are controlled by a small switch on his forehead

Not a big fan of prequels, me.   Not simply because George Lucas inoculated us all against them, but because they are, by definition, back-story; the salient points of which will have been included in the front story … So they are, by and large, padding.  Alternatively, they ignore the continuity of the thing they are prequelising and therefore become nonsensical – and, yes, Star Trek Enterprise, I’m thinking of you.

But they are the fashion of the hour, especially after the inexplicable success of X-Men Origins: Wolverine two years ago, so (whilst acknowledging with gratitude that this one is at least in 2D) in we go:

X-Men First Class begins with two boys; one privileged and lonely, distanced from his parents even though he lives under the same palatial roof as they; the other poor and abused and separated from his parents by the bars and barbed-wire of a Nazi re-settlement camp.  Both have extraordinary powers.

But, thanks to the flashbacks in X1 (2000), we already know this … What we don’t know is what took these two men from their respective origins to the point we first met them in the persons of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.  That, then, is the task of this film, to be the filling in that particular information sandwich and the challenge, therefore, for director, Matthew Vaughn, was to make this interesting and different and surprising.

He succeeds.  Very much against the odds! 

There are six credited writers on this film and it is a well known fact (made up by me) that any film with more than three credited writers is in deep trouble.  It is all-but impossible to draw together the threads from so many different tapestries and make a coherent picture.  Films with too-many authors become disorganised, compromised messes.  First Class doesn’t.  So, credit to Vaughan and his tame writer, Jane Goldman, for pulling it all together so well.

Moving on from some early Photoshop abominations, these later character posters are excellent, filled with drama and echoes of the future ...
... And, in Erik's case, shrouded also in the horrors of the past - demonstrating, in a single image, just how tragic the character is.
The film is set in 1963 which is, as all good Marvelites know, the year Marvel Comics launched the careers of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers (‘Earth’s mightiest super-heroes’) and The X-Men (‘The strangest super-heroes of all!’)  It was also the year of The Cuban Missile Crisis – the point when President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.  Oh.  Hang on.  That was actually ’62.  Kennedy was shot in ’63 but, unless they were going to suggest that that was a mutant conspiracy, that wasn’t really useful for the story they wanted to tell.  Cuba was much better!

So, as with Bryan Singer’s original X-Men films, there is a political subtext to this movie, comparing the stand-off between East and West to the coming stand-off between mutants and humans.  When Chris Claremont took control of the X-Men comic in 1976, he gradually began to include issues of identity and difference and the political aspect of groups in society.  He used the X-Men very successfully to hold up a mirror to society and its attitudes towards, race, sexuality and difference.  It is only right that the films do likewise.

But we’re in the 60s.  It’s all groovy and happening.  Man.  As well as not quite being the year of the Cuban Crisis, 1963 is also not quite the year the James Bond hit the screens (with Dr. No, 1962) but they haven’t let that deter them from making the first act of their movie into a shameless Bond pastiche.  Michael Fassbender is already being talked of as the next Bond (as though Daniel Craig had somehow announced his retirement) but I can absolutely see why – he comes across as very suave and very dangerous in the film’s opening scenes and, it’s worth noting, Matthew Vaughn already has a track record of spotlighting future Bonds (he gave Craig his breakthrough role in Layer Cake - 2004).

Is that a Walther PPK I see before me or a Luger of the mind?
This film is owned by, initially, Fassbender and, later, McAvoy.  It is very much their story, tracing the trajectory of their friendship to its inevitable conclusion.  The choice of title means that they must literally find a first class of mutants to teach – lots of fresh-faced 16-24s of various ethnicities to tick those all-important demographic boxes - but Banshee, Darwin, Angel and Havok are very much window-dressing, just there to make up the numbers.  Their getting-to-know-you scenes in act two are the only slow moments in the movie.

I can see why Kevin Bacon was drawn to play Sebastian Shaw, apart from the fact that he gets to play entire scenes in German and Russian, which is always fun; because he really is a fascinating character.  The first leader of the mutant uprising and, in many ways, the role model for Magneto, he affords Bacon some deliciously evil Bond-villain doings.  And sideburns!

Not quite the full Ken Adams, but there's still some lovely set design at Shaw's evil lair!
As for Bacon’s baddies, Riptide, the human whirlwind suffers from too great a similarity to Looney Tunes’ Taz, but Azazel, as played by Jason Flemyng – once again unrecognisable under hours of prosthetics – cuts quite a figure.

All the women are wearing 60s style fashions, but I notice that their miniskirts have a very contemporary look about them, they aren’t wool, as a lot of clothes were in the 60s, but much more modern, stretchy materials and, similarly, their hair-styles aren’t sculpted with rock-solid hair-spray.  The colour palette throughout is very contemporary (to now, not then) and the style of photography like-wise.  So, Vaughn isn’t doing a simple pastiche of the period – this film is neither Mad Men, nor is it Austin Powers – the period detail is worn lightly so as, frankly, not to get in the way.

Sadly, one of the elements which is just as contemporary today as it was then, is sexism:  Rose Byrne plays CIA agent Moira McTaggart (this is in the days before SHIELD took over the whole Marvel universe) but she is quickly reduced to doing her job in her undies.   Similarly, Zoë Kravitz’s Angel Salvadore also has to disrobe constantly to show off her wings.  Messrs Fassbender, McAvoy and Bacon stay fully clothed throughout.  Just saying.

Oh, I see, diamond hard skin ... Maybe that's why she has to prance around nearly nude all the time.
The film trundles along at a fair old lick, with the showdowns spaced out enough to give the plot time to breath and, importantly, the set-pieces all rise logically and consistently from the plot.  There’s no obligatory car-chase in the third act, for example, which shows me that Vaughn had real confidence in and control of his material.  Some people have bemoaned that the (almost) two-and-a-quarter hour run-time is self-indulgent, but I really didn’t feel that.  Apart from the few scenes with the first class themselves, the film loses neither focus nor velocity.

Cleverly, Vaughn has cast actors, even in the smallest roles, who bring gravitas and complexity.  Almost without exception, the authority figures in the film are played by actors like Ray Wise and Michael Ironside who typically play bad-guys.  This serves to make everyone morally ambiguous – because this is not a film about black and white hats, here everything comes out in shades of grey.

Sadly, as usual, the trailer gives away a lot of the ending and the personal achievements attained particularly by Fassbender’s Erik so, if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t.  Fassbender’s performance is so powerful because it is tinged throughout with the inevitable tragedy of his character arc.  McAvoy is less serious as Xavier and, therefore, slightly less engaging.  I was also disappointed that he didn’t at least try to impersonate Patrick Stewart.

As you know, Stan Lee gets to have a walk-on part in most of the Marvel movie adaptations – all starting with X1 – but not this one, however there is one absolutely delightful cameo!  Nuff said.

Overall, the film is clever, classy, epic and, like X1 and 2, steeped in real political and philosophical issues.  Some of which are dealt with in this excellent series of interviews from Emory University:

This second interview looks at the way The Big Bad in popular culture has evolved from being a simple nuclear threat to a more complex genetic threat ...

Here, Prof. Paul Root Wolpe talks about the parallels between the reality of 'bioethics' and society and how that was reflected in comics.

Finally, The Prof looks at the reality of the future of genetic manipulation and the ways of creating the Homo Superior:

Dir:  Matthew Vaughn
Stars: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne
Dur: 132 mins
Cert: 12A


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