Film Review: X-Men: First Class

2011– 132mn – 12A

Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult. Review by Walter Nichols.

This X-Men sequel, set in the 60s, tells the story of how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) met and befriended each other as young men, before taking their lives and politics in different directions: Xavier becoming Professor X and leader of the goodies, the X-Men; and Lensherr becoming Magneto, hell-bent on destroying mankind and establishing mutants as the master race. But all this is in the future. In the film’s present, Charles and Erik team up to stop fellow mutants Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his helper Emma Frost (January Jones), who are plotting to start World War Three.

Directed by Kick-Ass and Layer Cake’s Matthew Vaughn, the film benefits from its strong young cast, and it’s a clever idea to pit them against an experienced hand like Kevin Bacon (January Jones, as good as she looks in her skimpy outfits, is the only one whose acting skills disappoint, in often embarrassing and cringe-worthy ways). Fassbender and McAvoy, two of Britain’s finest actors, have great chemistry, and suit their characters perfectly.

The 60s setting is slick and stylish, clearly inspired by old James Bond films and their classic Ken Adams production design – although the film too often slips into parody, and the Bond vibe dramatically turns into Austin Powers. But the time period is a good fit for the gay and minority rights subtext natural to the X-Men universe (mutants are a minority reviled and feared by “normal” people, and Charles and Erik represent the differing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X schools of protest). The film feels bold, audacious, and fresh.

Where it lets itself down is with its story. There are many great moments but an equal number of dreadful ones. The second half is overlong, clunky, and poorly put together, and squanders most of the excitement generated by the set-up. And as enjoyable and competent as the film is as pure summer entertainment, it isn’t intelligent, insightful, or original enough to rise above pure popcorn fare the way great comic book movies – such as The Dark Knight, the two original Superman films, or indeed Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films – have done.

Star rating: 3 out of 5 stars