Posted January 13, 2011 by Matthew Looker in Films

X-Men: First Class

Of all the comic-book superheroes, the X-Men have to be the trickiest to adapt to the big screen because, rather than explore one main character’s newfound abilities and powers,

Of all the comic-book
superheroes, the X-Men have to be the trickiest to adapt to the big screen
because, rather than explore one main character’s newfound abilities and
powers, there are a whole team of mutants to explore, each who need their own
back story, personality and moments to shine. Surely it’s too much to ask a
film to give equal weight to each colourful character in an ensemble cast, in
addition to setting them against a worthy adversary, telling an interesting
story and providing exciting
special effects-laden action set-pieces? Well X-Men: First Class just about
pulls it off.

The film manages this by
mostly focusing on the central relationship between the two protagonists
Professor X and Magneto, or as they are known when they meet, Charles and Erik.
In telling a story about mutant persecution and ‘coming out of the closet’ to
the world, these eventual arch-nemeses represent the opposite ends of an
ideology spectrum, with Charles trying fight for acceptance among non-mutants,
and Erik just trying to fight them. It is this friendship, doomed by their
conflicting beliefs, that forms a basis upon which the rest of the story and
characters can be built. And it makes for a compelling character-driven movie,
as opposed to CGI-heavy action-packed one.

The film begins with a
recreation of the opening scene to the first X-Men film – with a young Erik
discovering his gift for controlling electromagnetic force while under duress
in an Auschwitz concentration camp. On hand is Dr Schmidt (Bacon) who, in order
to get Erik to use his power again, threatens and ultimately kills his mother.
Skip forward several years and a fully-grown Magneto (Fassbender) is on the
hunt for Schmidt – now called Sebastian Shaw – in order to get revenge.

At the same time, Charles
Xavier (McAvoy) graduates from Oxford University and becomes a leading expert
on genetics. Along with adopted sister Mystique (Lawrence), he is soon
embroiled in a CIA mission to prevent Shaw from starting World War III. As a
result of this, Xavier encounters Erik and the two go about recruiting more
mutants for their cause, inadvertently assembling the first version of the
X-Men team.

While the film tells an
interesting back story, to a certain extent it is merely navigating all of the
circumstances and characters in place to get to where the first X-Men film
begins, but this is never overtly noticeable. Characters act of their own
accord and everything they do makes sense given the situation and their
history. However, come the final act, there are a couple of questionable
allegiance switcheroos from some characters that aren’t really shown to have
any motive for doing so.

Despite this, the movie maintains
a fun disposition – the 60s-set story makes for a wonderfully stylish look for
the film and history is cleverly rewritten to suggest that Sebastian Shaw
himself was responsible for the Cuban Missile Crisis, which leads to the action
set-piece during the climactic third act. Along the way, the script displays a
great sense of humour, playing up to Xavier’s prudish Brit persona (played
brilliantly by McAvoy) and even slots in an excellent surprise cameo highlight
that will have geek fans giddy with excitement.

Fassbender is the real star
of the film though, portraying Magneto early on as a dedicated Bond-like
super-spy figure, composed but deadly. It is his bottled anger and
revenge-fuelled mission that sparks the dramatic tension in the film and
Fassbender portrays this brilliantly, despite Erik’s otherwise calm exterior.

Where the film suffers
slightly is in the overcrowding of characters. Xavier, Magneto and Shaw are the
key players, but with a whole host of other mutants making up the periphery,
all with unique powers, there is never the sense that they have been used to
their full potential. Indeed, in some cases, such as with new mutant Angel, who
has insect-like wings and can spit fireballs, we never get to see any more than
a few glimpses of them using their abilities.

Overall, however, the film
presents an interesting history to a group of superheroes that have helped to
define the template for comic-book movies in recent years. With a compelling
story, punctuated with humour and action, X-Men: First Class is everything that
both die-hard fans and newcomers alike could have hoped for.

Matthew Looker