Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Monday, 4 July 2011

Film Review: X-Men: First Class

These superhumans are uncharacteristically underwhelming
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne & January Jones
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriter: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Plot: In the 1960s, the new breed of mutants is emerging, and as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) begins to plan using their powers for evil, Charles Xavier is determined to make human beings and mutants accept one another. Caught in the middle of this is Erik Lehnsherr, the young Magneto.

X-Men has always been the little underachiever of the superhero franchises. Whilst Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have been runaway successes, and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films flirted with greatness, the X-Men across the last decade have never quite forced their way into the public consciousness.

Why that is so is a bit of a mystery, as it is a franchise with many great characters and a huge wealth of stories to tell. Yet, nobody has been able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. X2 came close, but none of the films has been breathtaking, and one or two have been anything but. With First Class, there was a chance to get to the roots of Magneto, Professor X and others and provide a Batman Begins-esque reboot.

In those terms, this is a missed opportunity. We do not get deep character examination: the biggest are along the well-worn lines of whether or not mutants should hide themselves, and why can’t we all just get along? Ironically, the only real changes that the characters display are entirely superficial.

Part of this is down to the sheer amount of characters. For instance, Nicholas Hoult is very good as Hank McCoy, but he and others have little to do. The other part of it is down to the fact that some of them are just a little bit dull. It turns out that Professor X is rather monotone, if charming, and doesn’t really have much more to do than plead for moderation, and there’s not great interest in that. James McAvoy’s performance is as engaging as ever, but it’s one of the less enthralling parts he’s been blessed to act.

Most of the script focuses on his relationship with Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, and he too is as watchable as ever. Part of this is seemingly a hangover from the original plan for this project, which was to focus purely on the origins of Magneto. Perhaps it would have been better if that had been held to.

However, being an X-Men film it is the business of being good blockbuster entertainment, and here it has a degree of success. It’s perfectly watchable, entertaining fare, but it does lack an absolute knock out sequence. Most of the fun comes in the form of snappy one-liners (including one of the best cameos ever filmed) and the sixties setting. Director Matthew Vaughn drew on the classic Bond films, and their influence is there, most notably in the form of the villains. Kevin Bacon enjoys every second of his evilness as Sebastian Shaw, though one suspects that he enjoys it a little more than the audience does.
However, the end result remains underwhelming. The little underachiever carries on underachieving. Perhaps it’s down to a misstep by the filmmakers, or maybe it’s down to something more fundamental with the franchise. Perhaps, being too numerous and too treasured, the X-Men are doomed to promise more than they can actually deliver.

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