X-Men: First Class | Film Review

Traditionally speaking, a major movie franchise that began almost eleven years ago and has currently re-emerged with an almost entirely different cast and production crew would be refereed to as a franchise reboot. The term, however, seems far from apt at describing X-Men First Class. The right expression, for the new addition to the film series originally adapted from the comic book of the same and similar names, might actually be franchise overhaul or perhaps even franchise coup d’etat. For director Matthew Vaughn’s (the British filmmaker behind last year’s captivating comic book parody Kick-Ass and gangster movies Layer Cake and Snatch) prequel to the previous films seems to out trump its predecessors in every manner, sense and frame.

Set mostly during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, a small group of rebellious mutants with a slightly ridiculous array of powers attempt to capitalise on the conflict then between America and the USSR and mastermind a nuclear war between the two nations, in the hope that most ordinary human beings will be wiped out in the process. Meanwhile, having recently discovered the above secret and as a consequence that there are people who can teleport, absorb magnificent amounts of energy, read minds and turn into diamonds, CIA representative Moira McTaggert (played by Rose Byrne) enlists the help of magnanimous professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who is a specialist in mutant genetics and, it so happens, a psychic, to combat the unruly superhuman sociopaths involved.

It’s likely that both comic book fanatics and historians will unite in their disapproval of X-Men First Class’ particular version of events. After all the first edition of the comic series (X-Men#1 written by Stan Lee with art by Jack Kirby) didn’t actually emerge until September 1963, a year after the film’s setting. Moreover, I have serious doubts that the Cuban missile crisis was somehow secretly initiated by carriers of a superhuman gene. But these fanatics would, of course, be missing the point.

Like the majority of Marvel Comic’s heroes during the early ’60s the X-Men merely symbolised the currency of cultural change of its time and through various character perspectives highlighted the competing approaches to ideological and racial difference. Versions of the X-Men story on both film and television have almost always attempted to apply this aspect of the comic but have often failed terribly. X-Men (2000) for example felt as if it was trying too hard and couldn’t quite get the balance right between social commentary and summer blockbuster. While X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) attempted, quite recklessly, to create visual Armageddon on screen and lost the plot almost entirely.

So now finally the franchise, owned by 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics, seems to have arrived at the right conclusion and enlisted the necessary components for an honest, genuine and exciting adaptation. These include employing a younger, fresher cast who are hungry to consume a decent script and deliver stellar performances, introducing a period setting and structuring the film around true historical events, thus making it more believable, throwing in some action and visual effects which although spectacular never distract the viewer from the actual story and, while we’re at it, a dynamic and emotive conflict between the two chief protagonists (Charles Xavier soon to be professor X and Eric Lensherr, soon to be super villain Magneto, played impressively by Michael Fassbender) who represent apposing political positions in terms of whether or not the oppressors of minorities (such as fictitious mutants) should merely be tolerated and made to understand or simply eradicated.

It seems a coincidence that in the year X-Men#1 was published Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both made the most significant speeches of their respective careers. For according to popular opinion the art of the comic book had attempted to mirror the political reality of the civil rights movement.

Does this mean that ultimately X-Men First Class is on a par with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which highlighted many similar issues via parallel political views? Of course not X-Men First Class isn’t even of the same calibre of cinema. And the film has its share of flaws (at times the visuals seem too glossy and modern to represent the period and the plot isn’t always presented with the most clarity). But in reference to and in comparison with some of the numerously hideous ways in which the superhero genre has been treated by the major studios in recent years this is a near great.

X-Men: First Class is in cinemas now. Visit x-menfirstclassmovie.com for details.