After a whole two years without an X-Men film it was probably time for another instalment, and in truth, prequel X-Men: First Class is possibly the best so far. Following on from the appalling X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t exactly the hardest task, but new director Matthew Vaughn has simply produced one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
Set immediately before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and forty years before the first X-Men, the film follows young Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr, two gifted mutants who are pursuing the evil Sebastian Shaw- but for two very different reasons. James McAvoy brings the appropriate amount of depth and respectability to Xavier, but as so often happens the standout performance comes from Michael Fassbender. What a stroke of genius to cast the man who so gut-wrenchingly portrayed sex addict Brandon Sullivan as a Lensherr who is consumed by suppressed hatred and self-loathing. Fassbender is fast becoming one of the most adaptable and consistent actors of his generation, and his quiet ruthlessness drives the movie right up to its shocking climax. A movie such as this, though, has to be an ensemble piece, and there is also excellent work done by the likes of January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, and Skins’ Nicholas Hoult. A special mention must go to Kevin Bacon, whose cocky grin and latent nastiness makes Sebastian Shaw one of the most odious villains we’ve seen in recent years.
Full marks as well to storywriters Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer, who deliver a plot that makes sense and character arcs that invest the audience. They both realise the vital importance of setting up these characters- if Magneto’s childhood isn’t suitably painful, we will never be able to view him with anything other than distaste. Luckily, these are three dimensional characters with a real story- little Eric has his mother nonchalantly murdered in front of him by Shaw, Mystique is a street girl who has to steal food to survive… the crucial thing here is that the special effects and action sequences are driven by the story, and not the other way around- something X-Men: The Last Stand failed to grasp.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom, there is also (in typical Marvel style) a great deal of fun to be had here. Xavier’s doomed attempt to flirt with Rose Byrne’s Agent McTaggart is a highlight, while a surprise 3-word cameo from one of the original X-Men (no prises for guessing who, or what the 3 words are) is completely priceless. There’s also a lovely postmodern touch to a scene where the young recruits show off their skills and pick superhero names for each other.
Ultimately, though, every superhero movie lives or dies by its action sequences, and once again X-Men: First Class is right on the money. Shaw’s infiltration of the CIA facility where the young mutants are being held is a masterclass, while the denouement is as tense and exciting as anything you will see all year. As comic-book films go, this is one of the best. Go see.