I have been quite a fan of the X-Men franchise since the release of X-2 in 2003 (I watched the second one before the first one) and immediately went about trying to watch the first installment. From there I got into the X-universe, from finally viewing the first one, to watching the second one again (it made a lot more sense that time around, surprisingly) and to reading the new line of comic-books. The first movie did an incredibly skilled job of establishing the many vivid characters of the X-Men world, albeit with a tad too much focus on Wolverine. X-2 still remains one of the best comic-book movies ever made, mixing action, smarts and emotion to optimum effect. X-Men: The Last Stand saw the departure of Bryan Singer in the directors chair, and yes it wasn’t as good but I do think it is quite an under-rated installment in the franchise, many critics seeing it as a point where the franchise went off kilter. I personally think that came with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a rather empty cash-in, that butchered the likes of Deadpool. And wasn’t Wolverine’s origins effectively covered in the first two movies anyway? So the franchise definitely needed a kick up the back-side, a move back to the heights of  X-2’s balance of action and emotion. And First Class is just that.

The action takes place in the early 60’s, where young tele-kinetic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just graduated from Oxford University, speciality being genetics. This leads to him meeting with Moira MacTaggert (Rose Bryne), a CIA agent who has some questions for Xaiver, concerning whether mutants do indeed exist. Xavier, now having discovered that he and his adoptive sister Raven/ Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) are not the only ones of their kind, agrees to help the CIA catch Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a mutant with energy absorbing abilities and leader of the Hellfire Club. Xavier soon discovers another mutant with his own personal vendetta against Shaw in the form of Erik Lehnsherr/ Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The two soon form a friendship as they go out to discover more and more mutants to band together in a team to face off against Shaw, as he plots to bring about World War Three by increasing the Cold War tensions between America and Russia, with the outcome being nuclear annihilation of the human race.

The story almost seems to be a mix of the film that could have been X-Men Origins: Magneto and a single origins movie concerning the earliest members of the X-Men. It’s a credit to the screenwriters that the two stories gel so well together. The first act sees Fassbender’s Magneto on a revenge mission, with almost a Connery-era James Bond vibe to it, allowing for some very intense and bad-ass moments for Fassbender, who really relishes the role and brings great gravitas, equalling, if not surpassing, the great performance of Ian McKellen in the original trilogy. The 1960’s setting also allows for director Matthew Vaughan (of Kick-Ass fame) to establish very much his own style as compared to the previous movies, and the movie very much benefits from this. The style is much more in keeping with the look of the original comic-books, from the costumes to the Beast make-up. The twist of the Cuban Missile Crisis also allows for some daft but fun alternative history to be established (I can’t quite remember reading about Magneto lifting a submarine out from the Cuban Sea to deter the Cuban Missile Crisis in my old GCSE history textbook). The action comes slick and fast as well, with all the young mutants, ranging from the familiar Mystique and Beast to the new never before seen additions of Havoc, Banshee and Angel, having a chance to show off their respective talents. The script itself does feature quite a few cheesy lines that make you cringe slightly (thankfully nothing along the lines of Storm’s strange ‘Lightning’ statement in X-Men), but in terms of narrative development, the proceedings run very smoothly. There are some continuity issues with the rest of the franchise (Emma Frost did make an appearance in Wolverine, if you remember) but Vaughan and even Singer (this time on story and producing duties) have said that this film is very much trying to establish itself as its own movie, with some funny nods to the previous movies, in a J.J. Abram’s Star Trek fashion. Which it effectively does.

The most interesting aspect of this movie for me though was seeing the early relationship and friendship between Xavier and Magneto, a story thread that is developed to satisfying results. It’s made all the more satisfying by the brilliant performances of McAvoy and Fassbender. McAvoy’s Xaiver is quite different from the sensible and mentor nature of Patrick Stewart in the first three. His Xaiver is fun, young, and quite egotistical. Yet he does retain that incredibly caring side, and the naivety and outlook of the hope that mutants will be accepted in society, that Magneto does not share and which ultimately destroys their relationship. Fassbender, as stated before, suits the role down to the ground, presenting a character filled with anger, yet with quite a noble side, who begins to develop the dark nature we’ve seen from him in the original trilogy. They also have great support from the rest of the cast, particularly Kevin Bacon who is deceptively charming and evil as Sebastian Shaw. He really needed a moustache to twizzle in some scenes. Jennifer Lawrence is very much a different Mystique then what we’ve seen before, young, sweet and quite innocent. The rest of the young cast cannot match the captivating gravitas of the two leads, but their characters are well-rounded and do a satisfactory job, even Nicholas ‘Skins’ Hoult just about manages a convincing American accent as a young Hank McCoy/ Beast.

In terms of what this movie has done for the X-Men franchise, I believe it has taken it in a new and exciting direction. Vaughan has injected this movie with a similar energy and confident style that made Kick-Ass one of the best and unconventional comic-book movies of recent years. First Class is most definitely the best X-Men movie since X-2. I don’t think it’s quite to the heights of that movie, as X-2 seemed to have a much more gritty style, although this movie is not without its darker moments (and it’s the fist X-Men movie to say fuck in it I guess). Some of the effects shots seem rushed, probably due to Fox’s determination to meet the release date, giving Vaughan just over a year to over-see pre-production, filming and post, which leaves some scenes with a sense of rushed compromise. But Vaughan gets so much right, from the style, to action sequences, character development and by bringing on Henry Jackman to compose an electrifying score, all adding up to a great (e)x-perince.

4/5– A fun and brilliant return to form for the franchise, with a well-structured script, great character development and some exceptional performances from McAvoy and Fassbender. In light of this effort, the franchise has a bright future once again.

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