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Tuesday, May 31, 2011


 I hate prequels.

They’ve always struck me as inherently pointless – basically entire movies spun out of one or two lines of expository dialogue. The automatically reduced dramatic tension is almost always too much to overcome.

The only prequels that really work – Batman Begins comes to mind – are reboots, rather than prequels. Batman Begins disguised itself as a reboot but actually kick started a whole new series of (much better) films.

It’s in this mould that X-Men: First Class attempts to cast itself – the ‘how-it-happened’ story that we hope will end up as a “how-it’s-going-to-happen-this-time” franchise-starter. After watching all 130 minutes of this hastily-assembled behemoth, I’m more than eager for a sequel, even if the movie itself only succeeds in fits and starts.

Directed by Matthew Vaughan (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) and starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as younger versions of Professor X and Magneto respectively, First Class details the coming together of these two super-mutants and their gathering of a team to stop the evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from causing a monumental disaster.

Watching X-Men: First Class is like playing with a wind-up toy. You can hear gears crunch and grind as you build it up towards a set-piece, but once you let it go, it’s an exhilarating ride. Then, as it grinds back to a halt, we’re required to wind it up again to get back to the fun. During those grinding periods, you can see and feel the film being made – clunky exposition, acting and dialogue abound. I loved First Class, but particularly discerning filmgoers might find a lot to dislike here, and it would be hard to argue with them.

The drawbacks are mainly results of the film being terribly overstuffed. Entire characters could be plucked out ofFirst Class with barely any effect on the script – Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in particular is only there to address the series’ hokey themes of being different, and fitting in. These questions have been so clearly addressed in the previous films and television incarnations it would have been nice to part with the traditional mutants-as-minorities theme in order for something a bit more complex to come along. Lawrence is a terrific actor, but she’s been given some absolute clunking dialogue, which even her screen-filling charisma can’t overcome.

The trick to making any comic book film work is to make the ludicrous elements of the plot seem cool rather that ridiculousness. First Class achieves both in spades – Nicholas Hoult’s Beast is a travesty, Jason Flemyng’s Azazel is ridiculous when standing still but sublime when in motion and Caleb Landry Jones’ Banshee is a scene-stealer, capturing the exhilaration of his powers. Furthermore, the film is so plot driven that some of it becomes ridiculous and the plot holes are plot chasms. Silly moments like Beast’s appearance, Rose Byrne stripping to her underwear to infiltrate a swinging 60s club or January Jones trying to be menacing are laugh-out-loud worthy.

Once Matthew Vaughan has wound the toy and got through his exposition, though, he lets it go. And boy, does it go. Magneto’s James-Bond-with-superpowers scenes are chilling and James McAvoy’s swinging-sixties-bachelor scenes are charming. When they join forces to recruit their young team and later train them, the film is incredibly entertaining and even moving. Sebastian Shaw’s attack on the CIA is thrilling in its cold viciousness and there were elements of the film’s final action set-piece that had me sitting in the cinema with my mouth agape, totally taken in with the kind of child-like wonder movies rarely inspire in me anymore. The film also features a couple of really cool moments for the comic book fans amongst us, as well as fans of the original series.

Unfortunately, in its latter stages First Class turns back towards trying to line itself up at the starting line of the original X-Men film and while McAvoy is still affecting, it becomes very hokey and silly, particularly the final few scenes. Even Fassbender, a wonderful actor, couldn’t stop me wincing at his final line. Like Source Code, I found myself wishing the film had stopped a few scenes earlier.

The performances are mostly serviceable across the board but special mention has to go to McAvoy. He is brilliant here, overcoming the awkward script to mine it for maximum humour, pathos and charm. I know the fans were clamouring for a Magneto prequel but I found myself wanting X-Men Origins: Professor X if it meant McAvoy could play this character for longer. If none of his films so far quite launched him into the stratosphere, this one might. Fassbender is also great the whole way through, Kevin Bacon swings wildly between great and awful and Nicholas Hoult puts in a superhuman effort to break through a bad storyline and bad make-up to have me emotionally invested in his character.

Good actors like Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence are buried by the material but at least they do their best, as opposed to a completely lifeless January Jones as Emma Frost. If you’re going to cast someone in almost entirely eye-candy role, could you at least cast EYE CANDY? January Jones invests Frost with all the sex appeal, charm and lingering menace of a poodle. Her idea of a sexy pose is standing like she’s only wearing one shoe and can smell something unfortunate. I can name fifteen actresses off the top of my head that would have been better than Jones here and her scenes drag like there’s no tomorrow. She’s a shocker. I found myself wishing that the producers had abandoned the character of Mystique altogether and cast Jennifer Lawrence as Emma Frost, where she could have been as awesome as we know she can be.

So here’s what I want. I want X-Men First Class to be a hit. I want it to be such a hit that Matthew Vaughan is given both time and freedom to make a second one, and I want that film to embrace the time period (which it only really references here, rather than utilises) and abandon the continuity of the original films altogether. There are parts of this film that are almost amateurish, but time and creative freedom could really give Vaughan the chance to make a classic comic book movie. All his films have been deeply flawed with sustained periods of brilliance to this point – but a sequel to X-Men: First Class could really give him the chance to shine, especially with McAvoy and Fassbender in the leads.

Though it has to be wound up from time to time, for the moments where that toy is off and racing, X-Men First Class is well worth your time.



For the superhero aficionados amongst you, I should point out that I think I like Thor better than First Class. For me, Thor is actually the more consistent film and somehow has less silly moments than First Class, though Vaughan’s film does achieve perhaps marginally bigger highs. I think First Class might be the more enduring film, but Thor is the better one.

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