Monday, 6 June 2011

Film Review: X-Men: First Class

Like much of its catalogue, Marvel's X-Men is a flagging franchise whereby its last outing, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, appeared to put the proverbial nail in the coffin. The latest rendition however in the form of X-Men: First Class provides a surprisingly refreshing reboot as Marvel looks to give the series the same defibrillation treatment as her other offspring.

First Class is an origins story beginning in the atomic age of the 1960s. Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), a former Nazi geneticist, has a twisted vision of a glorious future where mutants rule the Earth. In order for his dream to be realized however he must first eradicate its current occupants, humans. As Shaw seeks to manipulate the Cold War climate toward nuclear armageddon, it is down to a young genetics expert, Charles Xavier (McAvoy), and Shaw's former test subject, Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender), to form a crack-group of mutants who can stop him.

Firstly, First Class is an absurd piece of alternative history. One could sit and anally pick at how the SR-71 'Blackbird' aircraft used in the film cannot hover and that its first maiden flight was in 1964, not 1962 as the film suggests. But it is more the glaring gaps pertaining to the plot which really require one to suspend belief. For example, how and why is there a blue mutant child in Charles Xavier's pantry, of all places? Likewise, the attempt to offer a rationale behind Magneto's silly hat only raises more questions than it answers. If muggle Russians made one for Shaw to prevent telepathic mind-reading, then why doesn't every non-X person have one? Further, does Beast really believe his special syrum will work to cure his deformity and allow him to keep his powers, even if said powers hinge on his deformity? Yes, there are massive logic loops, and yes, it is pretty dippy in places, but fortunately First Class is good enough to get away with it.

More pertinent than its historical accuracy and other curiosities is the tale at heart; how the X-Men came to be. Naturally then, the most interesting mechanic at play is the character development of Charles and Erik. Charles will probably raise the most eyebrows, with McAvoy playing a role somewhat removed from the humble qualities embodied in Patrick Stewart's Professor X. Yes, Xavier is still super-intelligent, but he is also a cocky little shit constantly chasing skirt. The true brilliance in McAvoy's performance however are the little flickers he gives of the person Charles later becomes. Erik's story is more straightforward, but equally fulfilling as we are introduced to his origins at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Fassbender captures a certain pathos, manifested in his rage against Shaw as he takes to hunting Nazis in a very Ian Fleming's Bond sort of way. His journey follows a logical progression in that his experiences at the hands of the Nazis elucidate the incompatibility of his and Charles' world views, ultimately providing a satisfactory explanation to the pair's eventual split.

Unfortunately however First Class stutters and loses a bit of its narrative drive during the second act after Xavier assembles his mutant team. At one point Shaw offers Charles' 'X-Men' (and women) a chance to join him, but it isn't quite clear why some make the decisions they do. This is due to a lack of character development for the 'lesser' participants, compounded by both the film's reliance on plot and the casting of too many characters. Because First Class is so heavy on pushing the plot forward, most characters and themes become lost in one-dimensional cheese. Token moments such as the "let's all have codenames!" and Mystique and Beast's 'character' arcs of 'mutants who just want to be normal' almost ruin it.

One redeeming quality is First Class' many comic moments. Notably, one of the best is when a special cameo growls at Charles and Erik to go fuck themselves. But it is Xavier who gets the last laugh right at the end with a cheeky quip about hair loss. Likewise, whether intended or not, some of the location headers that pop-up are simply inspired; 'Super Top Secret CIA Base' or 'Russian Country Retreat' being personal favourites. Nerds might also smirk at the appearance of half the actors from the Command & Conquer games, Ray Wise again reprising his role as a smarmy politician and Michael Ironside as a grizzled military commander. Indeed, there's a lot to enjoy and First Class' humour doesn't detract from a film that otherwise takes itself pretty seriously.

While First Class isn't, well, first class, you'll still find enjoyment here. Yes, it has its problems; chaotic, poorly thought out in places and even a bit over-long. But it does just enough to make itself a perfectly watchable, if not bizarre take on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Above all it offers hope for the future of the franchise.