The opening of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) signaled its intentions as a weighty and serious comic book film, especially compared to the frivolousness the Batman franchise of the 1990s had become. That film’s prologue, showing a young boy in a concentration camp being separated from his mother, is particularly effective and rather shocking. Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class opens exactly the same way – Vaughn painstakingly recreates the scene from Singer’s film right down to the camera angles and editing. It’s a bold, curious move and its intentions aren’t exactly clear, but with it Vaughn’s prequel essentially reboots the franchise (Preboot? C’mon people, help me out).
After a lengthy opening which establishes and contrasts the vastly different backgrounds of the young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr – who later become Professor X and Magneto, respectively – the main thrust of the film becomes clear. Set in 1962, in the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the origins of the X-Men as we know it as filmgoers is told. We see Xavier (James McAvoy) and Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) meet with help of C.I.A. agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), who is putting together a new team of mutants to combat the threat of the evil mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his Hellfire Club.
The X-Men franchise itself has been hit-or-miss: the first two films (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) are very-good-to-great, while the latter two (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) oscillate between abysmal and just plain dumb. So, I suppose, it only makes sense that First Class splits the difference. The film is wildly uneven and feels like the screenplay was cobbled together from spare parts and leftover pieces (it very well could’ve been, given the fact that there are four credited writers).
At times the film finds itself is on incredibly shaky ground; its pacing is all over the place, some scenes with the teenage X-Men are borderline embarrassing, while Kevin Bacon and January Jones are disappointing. Yet, at First Class‘ centre, McAvoy and Fassbender deliver absolutely terrific, compelling performances, subtly and gracefully filling in the friendship of Xavier and Lehnsherr only hinted at in the other films. The rest of the cast is fine, though no one is particularly memorable, and after an incredible performance in Winter’s Bone Jennifer Lawrence isn’t given much to do. Vaughn too, doesn’t make the most of the film’s 1962 setting: early scenes with Byrne’s McTaggert have a reflexive, 60s spy movie feel, which is all but jettisoned in the latter half.
However, there are some great moments in First Class. As mentioned, McAvoy and especially Fassbender, but viewers are also treated to some top-notch, energetic action scenes, one of the best training montages in quite some time, and a genuinely surprising and funny cameo. Vaughn brings the right kind of tone and enthusiasm to the material, but he lack the skills to adequately balance it all and bring everything together cohesively. First Class is easily an improvement over the last two films, and while it isn’t as thought-provoking or intelligent as Singer’s original film or as flat-out entertaining as X2, it still has a solid core. Even though the final act provides the kind of high-melodrama that comes close to the best films of the genre, First Class is, in many ways (thematically and other), an unfocused retread of Singer’s original film that just misses the mark.
X-Men: First Class (2011, USA, 132 mins). Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon.