Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Last 2 Movies I've Seen: No. 2: X-Men : First Class

To conclude my exciting new segment The Last 2 Movies I've Seen (ha) here are my thoughts on the new X-Men prequel (which of course many of you have already seen. Always up to date, that's me). 

X-Men: First Class

I have been a huge X-Men fan for years. I spent years regularly reading the comics, particularly enjoying the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run which is still my absolute favourite. As such, I've always had a soft spot for the X-Men movies. I remember watching the comics I'd spent so long reading finally crossing beyond the mainstream following of the cartoon to an older, cinema going audience. 

It's easy to forget just how important the first X-Men movie was. Reinvigorating the comic book movie franchise and making Marvel see the film potential of it's vast back catalogue, it was a slick piece of fantasy filmmaking that lead to an equally impressive sequel. Sadly the third film derailed the whole enterprise. After the assured direction of Bryan Singer, X3 fell flat at the hands of Brett Ratner, who delivered a serviceable action film but one with none of the depth of the previous films. I've avoided the Wolverine prequel since it's release awhile back purely because I couldn't further taint my X-Men movie memories. Thank god then for First Class which attempts to bring the series back to it's roots.

For the most part it can be seen as a success. Getting into the backstory of both Professor X and Magneto is a stroke of genius, fleshing out both characters while providing more screen time for fan faves such as Mystique, Moira McTaggert, Beast and Emma Frost. 

Following a 40s based prologue, the plot unfolds in the early 60s and sees a pre-Magneto Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) out for the blood of the man who tortured him and his family in the Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile a young Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends time drinking, womanising and acting the cad alongside his best friend Raven (soon to be Mystique, played with aplomb by Jennifer Lawrence). When the US government, at the behest of Rose Byrne's Moira McTaggert, realise they need a genetic mutation expert, Xavier is drafted in, convincing Eric to join him when their paths cross in pursuit of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). What follows is an a race to stop World War 3 with plenty of interpersonal drama scattered along the way.

Thankfully the solid storytelling of the previous films returns here. Director Matthew Vaughn, originally slated to direct X3 and famed director of Kick Ass (among others), injects the affair with plenty of energy. Weaving together characters with aplomb, First Class creates an impressive story with some excellent casting giving things a gravitas sometimes missing from comic book movies. 

Jennifer Lawrence is particularly good, slowly peeling away the layers of Mystique to make you understand why she ends up the way she does. That said, the double act of Fassbender and McAvoy steals the show. Both ooze leading man confidence tempered with an unusual amount of vulnerability that gives their friendship a earthy, believable air. Rose Byrne is likeable and convincing though underused, Nicholas Hoult does a good line in tortured geek, Kevin Bacon glowers magnificently as the villainous Shaw but sadly January Jones fails to convince as the icy Emma Frost, instead coming across as wooden and uncomfortable.

The 60s setting and grandeur of the proceedings lead to the odd uncomfortably cheesy moment but for the most part this is tonally on the button. The action sequences and CGI are full on and enjoyable with the solid storytelling and characters giving proceedings an emotional impact beyond your usual blockbuster. And unlike X3 which groaned under the weight of too many characters, First Class does a fine job of having many mutants and enough moments scattered throughout for everybody to shine.

Undoubtedly a return to form, X-Men : First Class is a fitting entry into the series and a brilliant summer blockbuster in it's own right. It'll be interesting to see just where the series goes next but for now Matthew Vaughn can be proud of creating a film that will tick the boxes for comic book geeks and general movie-goers alike. 

Given that this is a prequel much of the fun is in watching the proceedings build towards certain key moments. Vaughn understands this and offers plenty of fan friendly moments.

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