X-Men: First Class
Latest in franchise makes clever use of Cold War-era setting
The novelty of the Hollywood franchise reboot has worn thin, but this re-launch of the initially excellent adaptations of the Marvel comic book benefits from a canny central concept that takes the mutant superhero team back to their beginnings. Rewinding to the early 1960s, the era in which the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic book first appeared, First Class tells the origin stories of Professor Xavier and Magneto (now played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and how they and their super-powered homo-superior brethren made their debut on the world stage. By X-Men: Last Stand, the thrice-told story of the human oppression of mutants, and the split in the latter’s ranks between pacifists and aggressors, was suffering from the law of diminishing returns. Relocating the story in the 1960s, however, re-emphasises what is, essentially, an allegory about race relations with Xavier and Magneto representing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The sixties setting also allows the film’s co-writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz (who also penned Thor) and director Matthew Vaughn to give the proceedings a cool retro make-over. Thus, James Bond and Mad Men are the inspiration for the action, style and design of First Class, right down to period-appropriate - but wholly ironic - sexist attitudes towards women. Meanwhile, rebooting the franchise has allowed the filmmakers to further plunder the rich mythology of the 48-year run of the comic. Alongside Xavier and Magneto, we’re treated to early versions of shape-shifter Mystique and animal scientist Beast (Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult), and there’s a priceless uncredited cameo from a fan favourite, but otherwise the cast of characters is all new. That’s a good thing in terms of the villains, who are lead by charismatic mastermind Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and includes bikini-clad mind-reader Emma Frost (January Jones in a nicely knowing piece of casting), though less interesting in terms of the less memorable debuting young mutants.
The film’s new spin on the old plot makes clever use of its Cold War-era historical setting, so that Shaw’s bid to rid mutants of their human nemesis revolves around starting a nuclear war between America and Russia. In keeping with that, the film’s climactic set-piece takes place off the coast of Cuba at the height of the Missile Crisis. The action sequences are well-staged throughout, while the performances by the leads are particularly good, and the humour in general is pitched just right. It’s good enough to make you want more. Perhaps a second prequel will shift from the groovy sixties to the funky seventies?
Out now on general release. Thanks to Omni Vue Cinema, Edinburgh.