X-Men: First Class (2011)
“Witness the origin”
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Synopsis: In 1962, the United States government enlists the help of Mutants with superhuman abilities to stop a malicious dictator who is determined to start world war III.
Hmmm. Another month, another super-hero movie. In fact, X Men First Class has tons of superheroes and tons of super-villains. It’s like one of those Christmas boxes filled with bite-sized morsels of all your favourite chocolates. I guess only copyright wrangles have prevented some ‘creative’ type from making the first superhero mash-up movie. No doubt, one day the potential profit from just such a thing will overcome all those legal wrangles…
Anyway: X Men First Class. What did I think of it? Well, for the first hour it was pretty good. We’re introduced to Erik Lehnsherr (played by Michael ‘Call me Magneto’ Fassbender), as a Jewish child with uncanny powers that the sinister Doctor Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is keen to tap into. In a promising pre-credits scene, Shaw tries to make young Erik move a coin by threatening to shoot his mother if he doesn’t, but then the kid goes and spoils it by adopting one of those comical 1930s conjurer’s poses, leaning back, raising his arms above his head, and pointing outstretched fingers at the target of his nascent powers. While Erik’s getting a taste of Nazi hospitality, wealthy young Charles Xavier finds a naked blue reptile called Raven in his kitchen. Strangely, he doesn’t bat an eyelid.
The film swiftly clues us in on the genesis of the X Men, and while it remains firmly fixed in the recognisable here-and-now — or rather, the recognisable there-and-then of 1962 — it’s pretty good. The movie hops around the globe like a hyperactive back-packer, flitting from London to Vegas to Russia to Argentina, etc. Fassbender’s Erik is an interesting and enigmatic character about whom an entire movie could quite easily have been made, but X Men First Class is all about how he and Xavier first meet and become firm friends.
The movie eagerly flirts with Bond movies, not only with its globe-trotting but with scenes in Vegas casinos in which a host of scantily clad girls briefly fill the screen. Shaw is there, in a back room, instructing some big-shot Army general to base a few nuclear missiles in Turkey, close to the Russian border. Shaw, who’s a mutant like Xavier and Erik, is seeking to precipitate a nuclear war in order to rid the world of ordinary humans so that the mutants can take over. We discover all this because ace, but under-appreciated CIA agent Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert) has gone uncovered to go undercover and passed herself off as a member of that gaggle of hostesses I told you about earlier.
Things move on a pace — we’re only about 20 minutes into the movie by now — and best buddies Charles and Erik trot around the globe on a CIA-funded mission to enlist more of their kind. They’re met with wholesale agreement from those kindred spirits they approach — with the amusing exception of one hirsute chap — and it’s now that the film suddenly starts to drag.
That’s because we’ve reached the dreaded ‘training’ sequence in which all this raw talent must be trained to control its power by focusing its energy, etc, etc. How many times have we seen this kind of thing? Too many — and in this movie it seems to go on for ever. Boredom started to set in, and my mind began to wonder. Why, it wondered, does that kid who can make loud noises have such non-1960s hair? In fact what happened to 1962? Where did it go? Apart from a few archive shots of JFK, the movie seems to give up on trying to recreate the era.
As our new recruits undergo their basic training, the Cuban Missile Crisis is heating up thanks to the behind-the-scenes machinations of Shaw. Fortunately for the world, the kids come through in the nick of time, and the newly-formed unit, complete with spiffy uniforms and nicknames, go into action. Thankfully, at this point the movie ceases to be dull and becomes just plain daft. It is a superhero movie, after all. But it seems to me that, by attempting to outdo the effects of earlier superhero movies, each new addition to the genre edges ever closer to overkill. Here we get a submarine being pulled from the sea by the power of one man’s mind. And, let’s face it, it looks daft. The sub is convincingly wrought by state-of-the-art computer wizardry, but it just looks plain daft. So daft, in fact, that it yanked me from the story and I ended up looking for defects in the computer-generated imagery.
X Men First Class seems to have found favour with fans of the genre, and no doubt a sequel to the prequel will one day hit the screens. And, as superhero movies go, it holds up pretty well. It’s just a shame that the makers of movies like this invariably feel compelled at some point to stop telling us about the people involved and reach for the flashy bag of tricks.