In the last half-decade, the X-Men have inexplicably become the boring relatives of the superhero family.
Neither as serious as Uncle Bruce Wayne glowering in the corner, nor as fun as cousin Tony Stark getting off with your younger sister upstairs, they’ve turned into pleasant dullards who don’t outstay their welcome and have an OK time. X-Men and especially X2 rocked; but the lacklustre The Last Stand and the workaday Wolverine spin-off were disappointing devolutions for Marvel’s mutants.
Enter Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, the writer/director double act who deliver the Kick-Ass ass-kicking the franchise needs. Swinging the action back to the ’60s, borrowing from the 007 style book and corralling a hip young cast, First Class makes the X-Men cool again.
Set in the not-so-groovy days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and globetrotting from Caribbean beaches and luxury yachts to kitsch nightclubs and atomic submarines, Vaughn shows us the Marvel Universe through the bottom of a martini glass.
Telling the origin story behind the origin story, we see the early days of future arch-enemies Professor X and Magneto – back when they were just a couple of best buds called Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).
In a world where evil Nazi playboy Kevin Bacon is luring impressionable young mutants over to the dark side, it falls to the telepathic professor and his new spoon-bending friend to start their own super recruitment drive.
Marshalling a motley crew of winged, web-footed, laser-shooting, skin-changing young weirdoes from around the world, the two unlikely friends open the doors to their new mutant academy and start preparing for war.
Butting heads with Charles’ moral compass and eager to avenge his traumatic childhood experiences, Erik’s journey from dark to light to dark again is what really gives the movie its edge. Turning a conflicted, vengeful young Ian McKellen into Sean Connery, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one, Michael Fassbender steals the film with effortless class.
Getting to wear all the best clothes and delivering most of his lines with flinty looks of nascent violence, Fassbender’s Magneto looks like he’s just stepped out of a black-and-white Parisian doorway with a Gauloises between his lips.
Even with a silly bucket-helmet on his head and the occasional slip into Irish (when he’s supposed to be Polish), his pressure-cooker performance (all repressed rage and emerging righteousness) keeps all eyes firmly glued to his half of the screen.
Tackling Patrick Stewart’s younger, randier, hairier self, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier leads the team of misfits like a reluctant dad secretly amused by his odd family. Given the less interesting part, McAvoy doesn’t have to try too hard to play smart and affable, but it’s hard not to hear Sir Patrick’s mellifluous tones whenever he opens his mouth.
Joining the class, Raven AKA Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy AKA Beast (Nicholas Hoult) get a decent chunk of the story to unveil sides of characters important later on.
Vaughn’s film sprawls and zigzags, but the keen ensemble cast help keep things grounded, while adding a long list of new names to the already crowded X-roster.
Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), Havok (Lucas Till) and Banshee (The Last Exorcism’s Caleb Landry Jones) make an impression, laying foundations for a potential follow-up.
On the other, evil side of the net, Jason Flemyng (looking, in his own words, like a “microwaved Elvis” as Azazel) and a bikini-clad January Jones (Emma Frost, aka The White Queen) are underused and upstaged by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.
Starting the film as a chilling Auschwitz camp commandant and ending it as Hugh Hefner’s evil twin, Bacon manages to convey larger-than-life invincibility while resisting the urge to ham it through the stratosphere.
Vaughn and his FX team (including Stars Wars legend John Dykstra) fire up a fistful of exciting set-pieces (not to mention a surprising amount of subtle CG detail you might not notice), but it’s the moments of brooding quiet between the super-powered spats that really engage.
Fassbender’s best scene recalls the killer opener of Tarantino’s last: calmly sipping beer in an empty bar with his ex-Nazi captors, letting the inglorious bastards stew in a moment of silence before exacting explosive revenge.
With no commentary tracks and a puny second disc of random off-cuts taken from the real meat of the Blu-ray, standard-def fans are going to feel short-changed. While still looking a bit haphazard, a long, exhaustive multi-part doc on the Blu-ray covers everything you ever wanted to know about the making of the movie and plenty more besides.
There’s detailed attention given to creating the swishy credit sequence, pre-viz comparisons, audition footage, an isolated score and even a full 10 minutes on the designing of Hoult/Beast’s monster make up – it looks rubbish, but at least you know they tried.
Rounding out a respectable if slightly muddled package are a ‘mutant tracker’ game and a handful of worthwhile deleted scenes. One of the latter finds Fassbender in drag. And yes, he still looks too damned cool for school.
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