X-Men: First Class

TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX: A rollicking action movie, a thoughtful character study, a satisfying origin story, and a hell of a lot of fun.
X-Men: First Class
Set in the 1960s – the era in which Marvel Comics editor and head writer Stan Lee, together with artist Jack Kirby, originally created the X-Men comics – X-Men: First Class is a rollicking action movie, a thoughtful character study, a satisfying origin story, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Lee and Kirby’s X-Men are mutants – individuals whose unusual genes provide them with remarkable powers – forged into a team of superheros by the wheelchair-bound telepath Professor X.

Following their comic book debut in September 1963, the X-Men have proved to be some of Marvel’s most popular comic book characters; popularity which has only increased as their adventures were adapted for the silver screen, starting with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000.

After the bombast of the third film in the franchise, Brett Ratner’s unsatisfying X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and the even more disappointing (and awkwardly named) X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), it’s a relief to turn the clock back for X-Men: First Class.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) the film focuses on the friendship between two young mutants, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, in the role created by Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender playing a young Ian McKellen), and explores the origins of the intense rivalry between them that will drive later (earlier) films in the series.

A womanising university student, Xavier is driven to uncover the secrets of genetics in order to better understand his own mutant abilities, and those of his childhood friend, the shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Lensherr is equally driven, but his motives are much simpler: he wants revenge on the Nazi scientist who killed his mother in the Holocaust.

It’s soon established that the two men have a common enemy: the debonair Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) a Bond-style super-villain intent on leveraging Cold War tensions in order to instigate nuclear war. When CIA agent Moria MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) approaches Xavier to help her understand the risks the mutant Shaw poses to world peace, the seeds are sown for the earliest incarnation of the X-Men.

After finding and training a young band of mutants, including the sonically-gifted Sean Cassidy (Caleb Jones), scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, Skins) and the energy-discharging Alex Summers (Lucas Till), these proto-X-Men must find and face down Sebastian Shaw as the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis move the world closer and closer to World War Three.

Briskly and efficiently told, X-Men: First Class feels a little disjointed and travelogue-like in its early scenes, but quickly settles down to tell its story in a way that is engaging for fans of the series and newcomers alike.

Possessing both genuine emotion (a scene between Charles and Erik in which long-buried memories of Erik’s dead mother are finally unlocked brought a tear to my eye) and moments of real exhilaration (such as the scene in which Cassidy learns to fly), the film’s main fault is that it tries to pack too much into its 132 minute running time. Nonetheless, Vaughn successfully balances the many beats and plot elements of his story, capturing a swinging Sixties aesthetic and referencing some of the deeper thematic concerns of the more successful X-Men films along the way.

Some may quibble over the quality of the visual effects, which do occasionally seem a little rushed and under-developed, but the rich array of characters and some truly impressive performances more than make up for such minor flaws.

A much needed injection of fresh blood into a tired superhero franchise.

RATING: Three and a half stars

X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Story by Bryan Singer & Sheldon Turner
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Original Music by Henry Jackman
Cinematography by John Mathieson
Supervising Art Director: John King

Stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Kevin Bacon

Opens nationally on Thursday June 2

No image supplied

Richard Watts

Wednesday 1 June, 2011

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and was formerly the Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Twitter: @richardthewatts