With The Dark Knight, we got the first great Batman movie. With Spiderman 2, we got the first great Spiderman movie. We’re still waiting for the first great X-Men movie. Although the mutant Marvel heroes should be a more than adequate mine for motion-picture material, all five film adaptations have come up short. Bryan Singer’s X-Men was bold, but devoid of action. X2 gave us some thrilling sequences, but betrayed its ensemble cast. X3: The Last Stand was … directed by Brett Ratner. X-Men Origins: Wolverine had memory erasing bullets. Needless to say, the series was a fixer-upper by the time Matthew Vaughn was brought on board to helm X-Men: First Class.
If any franchise warranted rebooting, it was this one. Yet First Class fails in much the same way as its predecessors did (or should that be ‘sequels’, considering this one is a prequel?). Although the cast is excellent, and there are a number of nifty hero moments sorely lacking in the other features, the script feels slapdash and the direction shoddy. I had hoped Vaughn would breathe some life into this comic adaptation, as he did in the first half of the joyfully anarchic Kick-Ass. Instead, he falls back on the bad habits he picked up in the second half of that film, where he forgot he was making a razor sharp satire and spoof of cheesy, self-righteous comic book movies, and just made a cheesy, self-righteous comic book movie.
The year is 1962. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a laddish genius who can woo ladies and guzzle down a beer bong with equal aplomb. He’s also a telekinetic mutant, and has offered sanctuary to the blue-skinned shape shifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), promising her a better life by teaching her to look “normal” and helping her hide in plain sight. Although he’s not quite a self-hating mutant, he does have a soft spot for simple-minded humans. That’s more than can be said for Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor on the hunt for the Nazi/ageless mutant Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) responsible for killing his mother and teaching him to harness his magnetic abilities (and I’m not just talking about the way he wears a turtleneck sweater – hi yo!). When Charles, Erik and Raven’s powers are noticed by the CIA, they are recruited to seek out more of “their kind” to bring an end to Shaw, who’s trying to start World War 3 by orchestrating the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although the picture takes place in the shadow of those infamous thirteen days, there is no sense of impending doom, or even a ticking clock to keep the stakes high. This is not the intriguing alternate version of events I had hoped to see; there are no stimulating ‘what if?’ scenarios to ponder like there was in Watchmen. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (working on a script by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) don’t even take advantage of the civil rights movement of the time. The plight of the X-Men has always been paralleled with that of the LGBT community, and although the ‘coming out of the closet’ analogies remain (“mutant and proud”, as they clumsily remind one another) it comes across without any of the poignancy seen in Singer’s first two pictures. Frankly, this film only feels like it takes place in the sixties because of all the cleavage being revealed by the female cast members.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not without highlights. McAvoy and Fassbender are charming foils for one another. If only Vaughn had spent more time fleshing out their relationship, instead of introducing us to countless other mutants that we won’t even get to know long enough to care about. Lawrence is great as the soon-to-be-Mystique, and gives gravitas to a character that seemed to only be included in previous films because she was naked all the time. Nicholas Hoult is also solid as Beast/Hank McCoy, even though he’s given the lion’s share of terrible lines. The villains fare worse. Kevin Bacon seems to have officially transformed into Gary Cole (which isn’t as awesome as it sounds) and the less said about January Jones (as ice queen Emma Frost) the better.
Before you call me out on it, yes, it’s true, I did indeed give Wolverine a positive review back in 2009. It was a different time! Barack Obama had just become president! We were all filled with blind hope! I recognise my wrongs now, and see many of the same issues present once again in X-Men: First Class. The action sequences feel undercooked (the best one rips off the expert opening from X2); the tension is non-existent; the tone inconsistent. Vaughn hints that he’s aiming for an ‘Adam West’s Batman’ style X-Men film, but just when he starts to have a little fun, you can practically feel him pull back, lest he get too campy or weird. Or fun. At least slashfiction fans will find a veritable treasure trove of sequences featuring Fassbender and McAvoy to inspire some saucy material. At least until the inevitable sequel rolls around. Sixth times a charm?
X-Men: First Class arrives in Australian cinemas June 2, 2011.