Like many of Marvel’s iconic superheroes, the X-Men were created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in the 1960s, a time when the world sat under the threat of nuclear war and the United States were being torn apart by civil rights unrest. Unlike some of its contemporaries, also born out of the nuclear age, the series has remained fresh and current through thousands of comic books, several animated series and four highly successful X-Men feature films. With the sour taste of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film still in the mouth of fans, the only place they could put it to muffle their cries of anguish, the X-series is rebooted by Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn.
On the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, recent doctoral recipient Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Gnomeo & Juliet) is approached by CIA’s Dr. Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, Insidious) to help track down potentially super-powered mutants behind the growing threat. Charles is also a mutant, with telepathic abilities, and uses his powers to scour the country for other beings with unique abilities to help them fight the good fight. Joining him in this task is the troubled Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds), a Holocaust survivor with incredible powers over metal, intent on bringing his own brand of justice to Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, Elephant White).
Matthew Vaughn has made no secret of the fact that he was displeased with the direction of X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film in the principle X-Men series, particularly after he withdrew from that film and was replaced by Brett Ratner. Later claiming that he “could have made something a hundred times better than the film that was eventually made”, fans tended to agree. Vaughn proved himself in the comic book world with his adaptation of Kick-Ass, a take-no-prisoners assault on the senses, and with that victory under his belt he has been able to return to the comic book world. While set in the 1960s, the film does not stick strictly to the canon of the time, or the historic X-Men lineup, nor does it take its story from the 2006-2007 “X-Men: First Class” comic mini-series of the same name. Instead, Vaughn and his team of screenwriters – who included Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller, the boffins behind the big-screen adaptation of Thor – take the series in its own direction, neither wholly indebted to the comic nor the film series that increased its popularity in recent years. It is surprising, given this rather liberating set of circumstances that the writers have found themselves in, that the film opens with a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the concentration camp scene from the original X-Men.
Unlike the majority of recent superhero films, the X-Men have always been distinct as being ensemble pieces. While this is true of this latest installment – with the inclusion of some excellent supporting cast in Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Rose Byrne, the sensual January Jones (Unknown) and the Man in the Black Suit Oliver Platt – it is McAvoy and Fassbender’s relationship that is the key to unlocking X-Men: First Class. The inevitable clash between the future Professor X and Magneto, played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the earlier films, hangs over all the events of the film, and McAvoy and Fassbender make worthy successors to the classically trained masters. While it is this same air of inevitability that inhibits some of the drama, and leads to a few “and that’s the origin of that” moments, it doesn’t inhibit some of the awesome set-piece action sequences that quite literally blow the previous films out of the water. Yet the film’s drastically reduced budget, with an estimated $100 million cut from the X-Men: The Last Stand budget (and $30 million less than Wolverine), shows in otherwise mundane scenes, such as the strangely failed makeup on Nicholas Hoult’s beast. If this were the first X-Men film, it may just be a modern masterpiece, but as a reboot, it will have to settle for being a great start in a new direction.
X-Men: First Class is released in Australia on 2 June 2011 from Fox.