Screenwriter: Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer, Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult
Running time: 131 mins
Prequels to successful franchises are a precarious proposition. Who can forget the turgid mess of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? The key, as with almost every triumphant movie, lies in the script. Fortunately, X-Men: First Class possesses quality writing that wrings out every drop of emotion and exhilaration from the superbly structured story, deftly interweaving epic action with an undercurrent of social and political themes spawned from its mid-20th Century setting. The wisely character-driven script is done justice by the outstanding casting choices of the fledgling mutants, while Matthew Vaughn's direction is appropriately kick-ass in nature.
The childhoods of the future Professor X and Magneto provide the starting point for the movie, as the young boys are depicted in wildly contrasting environments in the 1940s. Charles is enveloped in a life of affluence when we first encounter the mind-controller, showing compassion to the future Mystique and Smurfette lookalike Raven. Concurrently, his future nemesis Erik Lensherr is tortured in a Nazi concentration camp by the cruel Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is intent on unlocking the traumatised lad's metal-bending powers.
The action jumps forward to 1960s America and the backdrop of the Cold War. Charles and Erik first meet each other in the dampest of circumstances during an imaginative nautical set piece - and a close bond forms between them. The superpowered duo set about finding fellow mutations around the globe, but the deftly established emotional differences in their upbringing soon come to the fore. Charles is only too happy to turn the other cheek, while Erik is very much an 'eye for an eye' kinda guy. Revenge is certainly on Erik's mind when his former tormentor Sebastian Shaw shows up in town, embroiled in a nuclear war plot hatched in his Hellfire Club alongside his own pack of mutant cohorts. We can't really say much more without hitting the Spoiler Overload button, but explosive confrontations lie ahead...
The decision to cast Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as the leads was a masterstroke. The gravitas they bring to the production is palpable and enables the movie to intricately balance the psychologically authentic with the aesthetically fantastic. One of the movie's standout scenes occurs when Charles delves into the mind of Erik and experiences the suffering he endured as a child. The pain and tears etched on the faces of both actors lingers in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. Yet the pair's differences form an increasingly prominent part of the plot, with the mesmerising and intense Fassbender juxtaposed with the low-key pensiveness of McAvoy. Their interplay also delivers much of the witty script's humour, especially during a blistering montage of their mutant hunting that includes the immortal line - "More tea vicar?"
Kevin Bacon was a fine choice to play the villain, wisely steering clear of camping it up and instead exuding understandable - if deplorable - motivations for his dastardly deeds. Jennifer Lawrence also excels as the troubled Raven, who is less than happy in her blue skin. Someone should have told her that she has a great career lying ahead as a performer in Eiffel 65 music videos. Tedious pop culture references aside, the character's development during the narrative is fascinating, bolstered by her 'will they/won't they' romantic subplot with Nicholas Hoult's 'Beast' (which is not a euphemism!).
As with his direction of the pacy Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn instils a dynamic edge to proceedings with his sublime camerawork. The action sequences grow in stature and scale as the movie progresses, culminating in a breathtaking battle of the skies and the waters between several warring factions. Splitscreens are also well used at certain points, although the gimmick-free moments of understated poignancy are when X-Men: First Class really soars. Crucially, Vaughn's direction is unobtrusive at these points and foregrounds the actors' skills, rather than falling into the trap of trying too hard to push the audience's emotional buttons by being heavy-handed and overwrought with his mise-en-scène. Henry Jackman's magnificent score also plays a vital role in enhancing these moments in a subtle manner, and waiting for the set-pieces to ramp up the volume.
The only notable flaw in this fabulous production is the miscasting of Mad Men's January Jones as Sebastian's telepathic ally Emma Frost. The gorgeous actress will undoubtedly be responsible for puddles of drool (amongst other fluids) spewing forth in the cinemas this summer, but she simply lacks screen presence and exudes total blandness. It's like watching a lobotomised Betty Draper walk around in a bikini. Still - cracking eye candy.
X-Men: First Class has noble intentions beneath its glossy sheen, as its impressive subtext confronts what it means to be different in a society in which conformism prevails. This loosely mirrors its own identity as a movie, being an all too rare beast - an action blockbuster with rollercoaster thrills and laughs that has a fundamentally intelligent core. Fine acting, perfect direction and a couple of audacious cameos work wonders too. Oh, did we also mention that it adds masses of extra routes in the Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon game?