Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Stars: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Michael Fassbender
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Two central characters give heart to an uneven summer success
In the latest installment of the X-Men franchise, Matthew Vaughn, of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass fame, steps to the helm to take over as director and tell the story of the origins of the group. Going back in time is a tried and true strategy in the comic book world from which X-Men: First Class springs. Not only is the audience already familiar with and at least somewhat invested in the characters, they have the advantage of seeing the events on the page (or here, on the screen) from a future-eye view, seeing significances that often aren’t even seen by the characters themselves. In the case of a film, it also gives a director the chance to make a few well-placed inside jokes, which Vaughn does to often great effect (Hugh Jackman’s cameo as Logan, the man who will become Wolverine, is priceless).
But in the case of X-Men, going back to tell the origin story is a sticky wicket, given the political underpinnings of the saga. The original comic books series certainly did have the civil rights movement in mind as an influence on its themes—The Charles Xavier-Magneto conflict is often seen as symbolizing the differing worldviews of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, though perhaps a better analogue would be the Booker T. Washington-W.E.B. Dubois dichotomy. The movies champion gay rights, but those themes work best the deeper they are embedded in the consciousness of the script, not as obviously direct political statements. Symbolism, not allegory. Vaughn’s film is at its strongest when it stays with the former; when it veers into the latter, it feels almost trite.
Very well, but what about the things blowing up? That’s actually one of the weaknesses of the film. The extended fight scenes never quite feel real or compelling, and some of the special effects are laughably bad, especially given the budget Vaughn had to work with. He does his finest work, though, with his actors, when they’re not action figures or mouthpieces for political philosophy. It’s his treatment of relationships that augurs best for his handling of the franchise, especially in that central Professor X-Magneto (or, as in this film, Charles-Eric) friendship. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are excellent in their roles, and the screen crackles when they’re on it together.
In the end, X-Men: First Class isn’t everything it could be, but while it doesn’t have the revelatory jolt of the Nolan Batman films or the devil-may-care charm of the Iron Man films, it has solid and at times excellent acting, good directing, decent writing, and a compelling theme. In a genre that too often produces mindless retreads, it overdelivers. And yes, lots of things blow up, too. Welcome to summer.