sat 20/07/2024

X-Men: First Class | reviews, news & interviews

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

Superhero prequel feels like it came back from the future

Michael Fassbender as Erik, the man who will become Magneto

If there's one thing Hollywood hates more than people bootlegging its latest blockbusters on mobile phones, it's letting a lucrative franchise go to waste. Thus, after the initial three X-Men films and 2009's Wolverine spin-off, you are invited to roll up for the prequel, skippered by Brit director Matthew Vaughn, of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass fame.

The young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a bright and breezy telepath, schmoozing the girls with his amazing intuitive powers in a supposedly 1950s Oxford University. By contrast, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), whom the world will come to know as Magneto, is carrying the burden not only of his amazing telekinetic powers, but also of his hideous childhood as an experimental subject in a Nazi concentration camp.

The villain du jour is Sebastian Shaw, who just happens to be the same cackling maniac who abused poor Erik so vilely back in 1940s Poland. He's played by Kevin Bacon using one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld's old World Domination kits of menacing sneers, imperious stares and counter-intuitive tailoring, but even though he travels round the globe in his own sinister nuclear submarine, he's never quite spine-chilling enough (Kevin Bacon and January Jones, pictured below).

X-Men: First ClassHis sidekick is the aptly named Emma Frost (Mad Men's January Jones), who's all white and blonde and leggy and can assume crystalline form when necessary. Yet take away her extraordinary mind-controlling abilities, and her breath-freezing froideur isn't a million miles removed from the uptight Betty Draper.

The story, stretched across a wristwatch-examining two and a quarter hours, follows the fortunes of Xavier and Lehnsherr as the CIA seeks to exploit the value of the super-powered mutants and put a stop to Shaw, though (in accordance with the series' familiar themes of prejudice and outsiderdom) many of the agency's top brass dismiss them disgustedly as a bunch of freaks and weirdos. Xavier and his cluster of would-be X-Men are taken under the wing of the "Man in Black", played by a sorely underused Oliver Platt, who runs the CIA's Division X.

Xavier puts his troupe, which includes the age-defying Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nicholas Hoult's Beast, through a training regime to help them maximise their strange abilities, though it's clear that however sensitively he handles the conflicted Lehnsherr, there's a philosophical gulf between them that can't be bridged. McAvoy (pictured below) and Fassbender manage to evoke the duo's early relationship quite successfully, and Fassbender's tense, tightly wound performance is by far the best thing here.

McAvoy X-Men: First ClassBut there's a gaping hole where the combined charisma-juggernaut of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen isn't, and a jokey one-line cameo from Hugh Jackman as Wolverine serves only as a reminder of the missing cast members who made the earlier films memorable. The sense that this is a cut-price X-Men skimping on the megastar budget becomes harder to ignore as the yarn turns into a flaccid potboilerisation of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Shaw and Ms Frost having manoeuvred Russia and America to the brink of nuclear Armageddon apparently by the simple device of hoodwinking a gullible old Russian general. In the film's funniest scene, he gives a mind-projection of Frost a virtual grope while the real thing sits watching boredly from the sofa, muttering, "Pathetic!"

Ultimately, it feels more like a flashback to Seventies James Bond flicks or Christopher Reeve-era Superman than a glittering jump-start for an all-new X-Men. The effects technology may be cutting edge, but the screenwriting is crying out for a new typewriter ribbon.

Watch trailer for X-Men: First Class

The sense that this is a cut-price X-Men skimping on the superstar budget grows stronger as it turns into a potboilerisation of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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