X-Men: First Class

When your superhero franchise winds up in the clumsy hands of journeyman hack Brett Ratner, as X-Men: The Last Stand did in 2007, it’s time for an injection of new blood. Having made a sarcastic attempt at popping the superhero bubble in Kick Ass, British producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughan blows a bubble of his own with X-Men: First Class, the first in a proposed new trilogy of prequels designed to reboot a moribund franchise in much the same way as Casino Royale did for 007 and Christopher Nolan continues to do for Batman.

The story, from a long list of writers including original director Bryan Singer, Thor writers Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, alongside Vaughan and his regular collaborator Jane Goldman, opens in the same place as Singer’s 2000 film did, at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. There, a young Jewish boy named Erik is separated from his mother and uses his uncanny magnetic powers to crumple the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” iron gate. Brought before the Mengele-like camp doctor Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), Erik is made to demonstrate his extraordinary powers, with a life hanging in the balance. The tragic outcome of this episode instils in Erik (Michael Fassbender) a life-long thirst for revenge, using his boiling rage to amplify his extraordinary abilities.

At the same time, in America, a telepathic young man named Charles Xavier meets a strange, shape-shifting girl named Raven and adopts her as his sister. Now in their early-twenties and studying at Oxford, Charles (James McAvoy) and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) imagine a new world in which mutants can live openly, co-existing with the rest of mankind. When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) discovers Charles’ research into genetic mutation, she recruits the pair to join a new agency, fighting a new threat. Dr Schmidt, now known as Sebastian Shaw, has formed a team of highly-powered mutants (including January Jones as ice-queen Emma Frost), with the simple aim of destroying the world. Smooth-talking Charles joins with the hot-headed Erik to stop Schmidt from enacting his plan, stymie the Soviets and force the humans to accept their mutant brethren.

Expanded beyond the super-powers and spandex of the comic-books, X-Men: First Class is composed of a rich blend of elements and influences that help to ground the story in its time and place. There are strong flavours of the well-tailored jet-setting of the early Bond films, the alternate histories of Euro-thrillers such as The Odessa File and the Cold War paranoia of Dr Strangelove (including an homage to Ken Adams’ elliptical War Room set). The story pivots on a moment that threatened the future of humanity, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As the Americans and the Soviets face-off in the Caribbean Sea, we see John F Kennedy’s dream of optimism and prosperity curdle on a black and white television. There are correlations drawn with another dreamer, Martin Luther King, in the mutants’ determination to claim their own civil rights although this avenue is not explored as thoroughly as it might be.

It’s about the only trick that Vaughan misses. First Class is extraordinarily busy, driven by a tearaway plot. The story skips from scene to scene, circumnavigating the globe in a breathless rush, from Oxford to Las Vegas, Argentina to Geneva and Washington to a beach in Cuba. As Charles and Erik go about recruiting special individuals for their secret mutant army, the film becomes overstuffed with characters and incidents, friendships and enmities. Each of the recruits has a back-story that requires explaining and a special power that must be demonstrated. Vaughan makes heavy going of inspecting the troops, ticking their names off his list before collecting them in a glass-walled room and having them explain and demonstrate everything again. Just about the only omissions in the mutant parade are Shaw’s bad-guy henchmen, including Jason Flemyng as a crimson-faced demon, who are not given the courtesy of an introduction, let alone anything other than highly-choreographed fight-scenes to perform.

Just at the point where the film seems to have become a roll-call of special-effects derived introductions, Vaughan rouses his story for a stirring climax, as the might of the US Navy faces off against the Soviets along an imaginary line drawn in the ocean while, careening over their heads, telepathic mutants do battle between a futuristic jet-plane and a nuclear submarine. X-Men: First Class might be needlessly repetitive and awkwardly staged but it brims with youthful energy, giving a much-needed shot in the arm to a series that had become piteously anaemic.

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