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X-Men: First Class -- Film Review

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X-Men: First Class is remarkably simple for a film that, at the time of writing, holds a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) has stuck to a well-developed formula of ‘a little exposition here, a little exposition there, BANG...someone does something loud and colourful with a flick of their hand’. It works better than the similar Harry Potter franchise due to the well chosen and rounded cast who each give solid performances, holding their own on screen, individualising themselves and their ‘mutation’.

The film takes place in the 1960s, and effectively serves as an origin story, a precursor for the X-Men films already come and gone. The Cold War supplies the back-drop of the story, a time where paranoia was rampant in the United States and the bodiless threat of communism generated fear across the nation (that’s about all I remember from GCSE History). How fitting that Vaughn decides now is a good time to introduce the idea of mutated humans into this fear-stricken society, and with devastating results, I might add.

The key man in all of this and the villain of the piece is Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, Footloose, Mystic River), a Nazi-esque scientist and mutant able to absorb kinetic energy and cast it back in the direction it came. Pretty sweet, huh. He brutally uncovers a young Erik Lensherr’s abilities, and revelling in the new-found power, sets off to rule the world by manipulating the Russians and the Americans to bomb the hell out of each other. Meanwhile, mutants are tentatively stepping out into the spotlight all over the world, and are concisely split into two factions, personified effectively by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, The Last King Of Scotland, Atonement), whose stance is that he and his kind will be accepted by the human race, and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglorious Basterds, Centurion) who believes that they should not have to be ashamed of what they are, but acknowledges that Xavier’s never been at the mercy of people like them (us, normal folk).

Vaughn expertly navigates his actors and his audience through the film, dealing with many different and exotic locations, numerous effects-riddled sequences, and copious amounts of throw-backs to the comics and previous movies. Here lies another beauty of the film; it’s not a movie for comic-book fans, nor a movie for those who have seen Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2 (let’s forget 3 and 4). Yes, I have mentioned there are a great deal of references, but the intelligent script caters for all, providing each mutant with a clear and definable motivation for doing the things they do, as well as setting up an adequate context for them to act in (with the exception of two of Shaw’s mutants, but here is just an example of style over substance, an element employed actively in many superhero films, so I believe it can be forgiven). It makes use of everyone’s powers efficiently, refusing to tumble into the pit-falls that claimed X-3 and 4, and it comes out all the better, very much resembling Thor, another of this year’s rip-roaring superhero blockbusters, in that it’s loud, chaotic, yet coherent and well-told.

The actors do their jobs well; they begin the transition into the characters portrayed by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and each of them brings something different to the role. Fassbender is particularly captivating and superbly cast as the cold, calculating Erik, yet his chemistry with McAvoy’s Xavier balances his character nicely, and is a well-defined look into the friendship that these two mutants once had with each other. Other characters that fans of the franchise will recognise include Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone), a shape-shifter who appears in a very different and thoroughly more innocent role than in previous movies. She and fellow mutant, Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, Skins, About A Boy) may appear to be glorified smurfs, but their dilemma is well-presented, as both start the movie by considering their mutation a deformity, but learn to embrace their power, and in regards to Mystique, this becomes the starting point for a drastic change in character.

Those worried about being bored need not worry; there is a lot to digest in the film, but Vaughn never abandons the label of blockbuster, and in some ways, this is a pure popcorn flick, consisting of slick dialogue, stunning special effects and colourful characters, but it does it well, and is well worth the money paid. Well-acted, well-written, well-shot and well-made, this film ticks all the boxes and does it with some style.


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