1962. Mutant supremacist Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) plots to manipulate the world towards nuclear armageddon. Genetics expert Charles Xavier (McAvoy) joins forces with Shaw's one-time protégé (or rather, test subject) Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender), both overseen by a secret US government organisation, to stop him.
It is a strange world we live in where an X-Men movie without Wolverine turns out to be better than a Wolverine movie without X-Men. Although, that really says more about the awfulness of Fox’s first ‘Origins’ story (a spin-off with prequel DNA) than the brilliance of its latest (a prequel with mild retcon tendencies). Still, we should be heartened that, with the help of Brit genre-sharpeners Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (who gleefully bruised the comic-book movie’s well-toned posterior with last year’s Kick-Ass), the X-franchise is back on the tracks laid 11 years ago by Bryan Singer. Even if they do only head towards the point where Singer first laid them.
Vaughn and Goldman prove a suitably bad influence on the franchise. This is easily the most brutal X-Men movie yet, pushing the rating to Dark Knight levels with some pretty raw violence. One superb sequence finds Jason Flemyng’s devilish teleporter Azazel revealing an especially nasty way of using his powers (think vertically). Another sees Michael Fassbender’s Lehnsherr employing his metal-manipulating talents on a slimy Swiss banker in a manner befitting Larry Olivier in Marathon Man.
On the sexy side, we see lingerie-clad dolly birds (prompting Rose Byrne’s go-getting secret agent to strip down to her bra, panties and suspenders in a contrivance on which Austin Powers would groove) and one raunchy/cheeky moment which involves Lehnsherr and James McAvoy’s Xavier inviting a mutant stripper to show them hers if they show her theirs. It’s especially telling that this is the first X-Men movie in which the f-word is growled, albeit just once. And we can’t think of a better character to have the honour of saying it.
The absence from the action of everyone’s favourite adamantium-clawed, cigar-gnawing semi-psycho isn’t too keenly felt, even given the more adult shadings. This is primarily because Fassbender’s Magneto more than capably fills the Wolvie-shaped hole. Indeed, in many ways First Class replays the first X-Men’s story: Professor X has a team, and along the way he brings in a powerful outsider with a dark past and unstable personality, who he attempts to convert to his ideology. Here, of course, that outsider is Lehnsherr, whose early Nazi-hunting scenes portray him as Connery-era 007… with superpowers. And yes, that is as entertaining as it sounds. It’s just a shame it doesn’t last that long.
In fact, nothing really lasts that long in X-Men: First Class, and that is its biggest weaknesses. It is so single-mindedly plot-driven that it whips along at too brisk a pace, rushing through scenes to an end point which feels too neat, too wrapped up, too contrived for a story which still has at least 40 years to go before we get to X-Men. It’s here that you really catch the scent of compromise, feel the pressures on the film-makers (also evidenced in a few too many disappointing FX moments — and don’t get us started on what they’ve done to Beast) to meet their release-date deadline. Why, for example, does Lehnsherr suddenly turn Irish — Fassbender’s natural twang — in the final 20 minutes? We suspect there may not have been time for a much-needed ADR session.
The too-many-characters problem is also felt, with the minor mutants given little more than a few token character moments. There is nothing which comes close to X2’s superb ‘coming out’ scene with Iceman — and we could have lived without the cheesy “Let’s all have codenames!” episode. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in particular reduced to a single-issue cipher: she’s the shapeshifter who just wants to look ‘normal’… but should she? Plot holes, meanwhile, are disappointingly numerous; why, for example, does Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy believe his special serum will normalise his freakish appearance (monkey feet) but not remove his special abilities, when those abilities are patently dependent on his physical form?
A more steadily paced, character-driven story which focuses more on the Xavier/Lehnsherr relationship would have made for a much, much stronger entry in the X-canon. Just as the ’60s backdrop is squandered (the Civil Rights movement isn’t even mentioned; instead it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis as channelled through Dr Strangelove and The Man From UNCLE), so is the chemistry between Fassbender and McAvoy. Who cares about all those kids with powers that are just slightly different variations on what we’ve seen in the series already, when you’ve got these guys in your movie?
All you'd expect from an X-Men film (or spin-off, or prequel), but not all you'd hope for. It smacks of rush and compromise, but there's thankfully enough to make you feel optimistic about the series' future once more.