After the less than satisfying finale to the original X-Men trilogy and the loathsome Wolverine spin-off in 2009, director Matthew Vaughan - last seen lighting up cinema screens with last year's excellent Kick Ass - had his work cut out for him to reignite the faltering franchise. Instead of rebooting the series entirely, he has decided to go down the prequel route with the 60s period piece - a first for comic book films? - X-Men: First Class, based loosely on the original comics by Stan Lee in 1963 and the mini series of the same name published in 2006.
Unlike pretty much every X-Men film previously, this one leaves Hugh Jackman's charmless Wolverine behind and concentrates on the early years and friendship of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnserr (Michael Fassbender) before they gained their infamous titles of Professor X and Magneto respectfully.
Over the course of the story we see them assemble the earliest form of the X-Men with stalwarts such as Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havoc (Lucas Till) and Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and go up against the devious Hellfire Club featuring Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng).
First Class certainly sets itself apart from the usual comic book films of recent times, no more so than in its beautifully poised 1960s setting. While being a brilliant, honestly good fun, superhero movie, it also manages to conjure memories of classic James Bond films from the Sean Connery and Roger Moore era. Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Magneto was very much his own and all the better for it, after having to step into a role made famous by the great Ian McKellen. He was a dark, tragic individual who I almost felt bad for hating by the film's closing moments. His chemistry with James McAvoy's Xavier was simply glorious, bringing up some of the more tender and philosophical moments of the film. Neither man could be argued for being right or wrong and if placed in their shoes, which side would you choose...
While X-Men films can be littered with too many characters to mention in one review, I'll say that the highlights were Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique who was giving probably a more care and attention in this film than she had in the previous trilogy - having a beautiful brother/sister relationship with Xavier, to a schoolgirl crush on Beast, to then being seduced by the ideals of Magneto. Matthew Vaughan also did a clever job of paying tribute to Rebecca Romijn who portrayed the character in the original films.
After having my reservations of his original casting, I particularly enjoyed Nicholas Hoult's Beast. As oppose to the gentle, sophisticated, creature seen in his later years of the X-Men comics, cartoon and third film, he was never a being comfortable in his own skin - or fur - even when in the presence of fellow mutants. His transformation into his more famous appearance managed to come off like the infamous transformation in An American Werewolf in London.
Other notable mentions include Kevin Bacon's return to form - and the mainstream - as the sinister Sebastian Shaw, who can take most of the credit for how Magento feels towards mankind, despite being a mutant himself. Rose Byrne did just enough to not be considered just another pretty face in the role of Moira McTaggart, though probably could've benefited from having a couple more scenes with McAvoy to make the love story grow a bit on screen. While I'm a huge fan of January Jones in her role of Betty Draper in TV's Mad Men, she didn't really do much as Emma Frost to convince me she can play any other character, but considering how Frost is in the comics, it would be unfair to say Jones didn't pull the character off well. Also look out for a certain cameo involving 'the man with the claws'. You can't miss it.
Matthew Vaughan should be praised for turning the franchise into something fun, exciting, light hearted and action packed - especially when looking back, the original films can look so beige in comparison. It was also quite brave, in a huge mainstream blockbuster, for the director to implore the use of subtitles for a large portion of the film's flashback scenes - including a tense opening in a Nazi concentration camp - and the moments set on foreign soil. It was a gamble that generally paid off and added much needed authenticity. Also the way the story managed to tie itself into the original trilogy's continuity was pulled off with much more panache and respect, than the disappointing Wolverine film from two years ago.
In a film which did everything in its power to put me off seeing it with the awful marketing strategy and half arsed posters, X-Men: First Class was a bold, fun, action summer blockbuster in the most traditional sense. It's not only reinvigorated an ageing film franchise, but with some fantastic performances and an exciting, immersing, plot, it's also managed to become the best film of the series to date. First class indeed...
X-Men: First Class is in cinemas everywhere now.