By David Katz
X-Men: First Class beams into cinemas this summer attempting to capitalise on the reboot trend that has revitalised blockbuster filmmaking. It’s a method that’s worked beautifully and naturally for the Batman, James Bond and Star Trek franchises: take an enduring character people know and love, restart the internal continuity with a hot new star, and watch the cash fly in.
Except that this X-Men installment isn’t quite a straight overhaul in the manner of Batman Begins. There are some fine performances from the likes of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Lawrence, but the five star reviews from some truly over-zealous media outlets have raised expectations far too high. The film is ultimately an untidy compromise between introducing a fresh character arc, and keeping the continuity in check with the 2000 X-Men film that most people have probably forgotten, given how disposable these films are. And so you have a film awkwardly trying to establish its own identity, whilst all the while straining to tie the loose ends keeping the older films in the series relevant. The unwieldy conception of this film was exacerbated by a rushed shoot, multiple script re-writes, and a general sense of unease as to where the X-Men franchise should head next. This is a shame, because there are some promising elements in X-Men: First Class, with a cast talented enough to carry the weight of a big tentpole franchise. Nevertheless, director Matthew Vaughn, fresh off the relative success of Kick-Ass, struggles to put his unique signature on a film that feels somewhat misconceived.
Have you ever wondered exactly how Professor X and Magneto meet, bond over their shared powers, and eventually fall out over a dispute on human-mutant separatism? This is what the screenwriters of X-Men: First Class want us to invest in. The film embarks on relating these key mutants’ success stories in confident fashion, taking some storytelling risks: the narrative of Erik Lensherr (an impressive Michael Fassbender) in becoming Magneto is triggered by his mother’s death at the hands of the Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Compelled to avenge his family and harness his metal-manipulating powers, he stalks the globe for Shaw’s whereabouts in an entertaining prologue redolent of James Bond in ruthless assassin mode. Lensherr comes into contact with Oxford University genetics professor Charles Xavier and they form a covert team sponsored by the CIA as a line of defense in the US’s Cold War struggle with the Russians. Together, they round up a motley crew of mutants, and begin to lay the groundwork for the X-Men as related in the previous films.
Apart from a few smart flourishes, mostly provided by Fassbender (check the way he dispatches a tableful of drunk Nazis early in the film), the progression of this plot is sadly laid out in identikit blockbuster form. It feels like watching a demo version of every origin-story superhero blockbuster, with Spider-Man or Iron Man substituted for a bunch of prim-looking, and interchangeable 18-year-olds who might be able to move energy or change shape or something cool like that. It is so prosaic. Believe me, the audience I watched this film with were fidgeting loudly, louder than this film’s already ear-bashing audio track.
My main problem here is that X-Men: First Class is an inferior mutation of one hundred better ideas, blended together and stamped with that oppressive ‘X’ symbol like the producers came up with them themselves. It steals the imagery, sense of flair and production design from the early Connery Bond films, yet immediately forgets what made them so charming. There should be an official name, probably in Belgian, for the feeling that comes from watching a film that apparently takes place in 1962 only to function at the mindless pace of a 2010s popcorn flick. I also noticed attempted pastiches of Star Trek’s (2009) central bromance between the two male leads, the booming yet elegant soundtrack-style of Hans Zimmer’s Inception (2010) music, and a spot of the history-modifying arrogance that was so abhorrent in Inglourious Basterds (2009). Sure, nabbing the best ideas from other films and making them your own is one way in which great cinema is made, but at times, X-Men: First Class feels like a $120 million budgeted guided tour through Matthew Vaughn’s DVD library.
The X-Men franchise really has the potential to produce some great cinema: we have a universal allegory for the socially outcast, some sterling original characters (hello Wolverine!) and a backlog of classic stories from the Marvel comic archives. And so, the defining note we take from X-Men: First Class is that 20th Century Fox have botched one of their most potentially profitable acquisitions (a poor US weekend box office opening only furthers this thought) pushing the quickest possible thing out there to preserve the brand. Somewhere, Christopher Nolan, comfy in the Warner Bros. executive canteen, is cackling. Cackling!