Going back to the start has for many years been the sure-fire way to rescue a tarnished legacy.
After the very average third X men: The Last Stand, Marvel’s gifted mutants need saving from franchise oblivion, and in First Class, director Matthew Vaughn has created a spectacular and fresh origin story to rank alongside the best.
Taking the action back to the swinging 60’s with a great cold war plot and contemporary set designs echoing Bond’s glamorous heyday, with a hip soundtrack to boot, X-men now has a cool vibe.
Kick Ass collaborators Vaughn and scribe Jane Goldman still deliver a momentarily dark reboot, with a fresh new roster of mutants and a clever real world story, but it’s the central clash between Prof’ X and Magneto that compels the most, telling where it all went wrong for the old friends and eternal enemies seen in X-one to three.
Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), are gifted mutants with differing ideals on their place in the world of men, and when Kevin Bacon’s former Nazi Sebastian Shaw plays the worlds superpowers off against each other to create the very real Cuban missile crisis, their moral differences are tested.
Professor X begins to recruit young mutants with a variety of attributes for his first class at his school for the gifted in order for them to control their gifts, but when the world seems doomed to impending nuclear war as America and Russia collide, they must quickly mobilise to protect their human detractors.
It’s the battle of ideals and wills between Charles and Erik that gives First Class its emotional thread and edge, with Erik becoming Charles’s greatest student and greatest critic; early brotherly love and mentoring giving way to foreboding differences that may bring decades of mutant division.
Fassbender, as has become customary, steals the show with a stylish portrayal of the soon to be Magneto as he first treks the globe to exact revenge for his tortured childhood. Magnetic and enigmatic, a clearly conflicted, youthful soul who knows too well of the wisdom later placed in his head by McAvoy’s Prof; but controlled by the power of vengeance, his darker turn frights and delights.
McAvoy, no less accomplished, is the nobility as the young professor, he charms and leads with calm authority, believing in the harnessing of mutation for good and most of all peace, his most conflicted ideal against Erik’s conviction that man will destroy what it fears.
The two friends and would be foes are utterly believable as represented in their youth (even if Prof X does have hair!), not only with superb characterisation but with leading actors and direction considerate to the brilliance that came before in the hands of Stewart and McKellen.
McAvoy and Fassbender take their own lead, fresh and emotionally revealing, adding even greater depth to the original X Men, all while paying respectful homage with nuances and traits of their elder acting statesmen.
As ever all heroes need a good Villain and Kevin brings home the Bacon (sorry) as the sophisticated megalomaniac Shaw, with all manner of menace and swagger, and no small measure of charming manipulation, creating discord in the naive first classmates, recruiting to add to his own band of mutant baddies. And why not, as his slim, three strong roster including January Jones’ Emma Frost as the only other main enemy could do with freshening up, when Jason Fleymng’s Azazel (a red-skinned Nightcrawler) and Alex González’s Riptide, are only given a superficial platform to show off their bad mutant talents.
Thankfully the First Class’ new recruits are given more meaningful opportunity to not only show off their skills but offer deeper characterisation, providing a neat subplot of confused mutant adolescence with Jennifer Lawrence’s conflicted Mystique the most disenchanted, ashamed of her appearance, but buoyed by an acceptance from those of her like; and in Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy, a cool blue kinship.
The cold war scenario at first serves to create irregular pacing and the early frantic globetrotting muddles somewhat until Erik’s vengeful crusade crosses paths with Charles to get to the heart of First Class’ brilliant storytelling.
Action is accomplished, showcasing the talents of mutants new and old, with all manner of metal manipulation, mind meddling and sexy shape shifting, but the FX fluctuates from flashy brilliance to standard trickery.
Vaughn’s entry is a cool trip back in time to create a worthy origin and a fine addition to the mutant stable; First Class’ superb character ensemble and meaningful themes puts X’s in all the right boxes. Vote Mutant!
(Nearly 8.5, but I don’t do halves)