When they were young... it's an origin story well told in X-Men: First Class (2011)
After the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009) Marvel's groundbreaking superhero franchise was in danger of slipping into self-parody; devoid of any true emotional depth their adamantium-clawed money-spinner devolved into primal caricature, rampaging through shoddy set-pieces with some of the worst CGI I've ever seen. Now comes First Class, a project which had fans scared in its production stages as reports of studio pressure and compromise filtered through the web, leading us to expect the worse. After all, this is arriving only a year after Matthew Vaughn's invigorated, anarchistic Kick-Ass (2010), which the entire genre must now answer to. So, has he delivered the goods? Shockingly, against all odds, he has - and this is the best superhero movie since Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, 2004).
Not that it doesn't have problems. As far as series continuity is concerned it really doesn't matter that overlapping details don't make sense; the ages of characters for example, or the time period in which they join the X-Men. The comics have been around for almost five decades now and there are masses of deliberate continuity errors within them, so I have no problem applying the same rules of acceptance to their cinematic adaptations. That said, Vaughn does make a conscious decision to plant us within Singer's established universe by recreating, shot-for-shot, the Auschwitz opening of X-Men (2000). The problems really lie within the structure of the film and how single-minded its end goal is. As an origins story it has to get from A to B within a certain amount of time (132 minutes, which never feels stretched) and as such will have to devote itself to plot mechanics. First Class is admirably dedicated to fleshing out character history, with perhaps only a quarter of the time focused around action, but it's still not, as many have described, a character piece. Such accolades can be laughed off when Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), against all better scientific judgement, injects himself with a serum to turn himself into Beast, ending up looking like a rejected design for Monsters, Inc.'s (Docter, Silverman, 2001) Sulley. His relationship with Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is also forced, and the wonderful Rose Byrne is reduced to running around in skimpy lingerie (not that I'm complaining) for her one major scene. January Jones, as Emma Frost, is given more to do, but emotes about as convincingly as a diamond statuette, seemingly only onscreen as much as she is for her bountiful cleavage. Most fleshed out is Kevin Bacon's delightfully power-hungry villain, giving the actor a platform on which to deliver his best performance in years. His cronies, however, are worst served by the screenplay, performing perfunctory evilness without a line of dialogue between them.
The story itself is as routine as they come, charging through the franchises acceptance debate (an interesting metaphor for racial prejudice) and the friend/enemy dynamic between Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender), which is emotionally charged but less developed than I'd hoped for, given that equal screen-time must be allowed for their recruits. Erik gets all of the best scenes, especially in the story arc before he meets Xavier. As a boy he has a terrifying encounter with Bacon's Shaw, a mustached, chocolate-munching megalomaniac fluent in the language of evil. The shot which reveals a torture chamber adjoined to Shaw's office is effectively shocking, and when Erik becomes older, incarnated by Fassbender, a revenge mission sends him on a stab-happy trip to Algeria, pushing the 12A boundaries as much as is possible. These set-pieces are hugely entertaining, as are the scenes with Charles and Erik together, as they verbally spar about the nature of their powers and their eventual destiny among mankind. The two actors turn in stellar work here, investing their characters with roguish charm and intelligence. Their friendship carries genuine weight and by the beach-set finale ("Never again") the fallout feels deeply personal. Casting is definitely the key to First Class, and Vaughn struck gold with Fassbender, who I've been a huge fan of since Hunger (McQueen, 2008). His work provides the emotional anchor which meant that I was never bored, but always had some psychological meat to chew on between the meet-cutes, exposition and action (all of which are, admittedly, very well handled). If only they'd decided to cast Fassbender in the much-rumored X-Men Origins: Magneto... now that's a film I'd pay to see.
I don't want to undersell the movie though; after all, I opened this review by declaring it the best superhero movie since Spider-Man 2, and with good reason. Plot holes are inevitable, certain characters were always going to get side-lined and bad acting is nothing new to blockbusters (Jones is good in TV's Mad Men though). Overall, despite the linearity and predictability of the plot, which undeniably drives the movie, X-Men: First Class is a smart and very engaging summer movie which understands that audiences care more about character than explosions. The film moves at a firecracker pace, is smartly scripted and given emotional substance by Fassbender, McAvoy and Bacon, all on the top form that this material deserves. I was entertained by Vaughn's film, and more importantly I was moved by its conclusion. I actually love superhero movies and am pleased when one as solid as First Class comes along. I just can't help but wonder what it could have been with another six months on the production schedule. Had it been a little braver in its narrative trajectory and a little broader in the scope of its ensemble, well... it could have been as good as X2 (Singer, 2003) which, by the way, is a genre classic.