For some children, eagerly awaiting the next comic for the latest exciting instalment in the lives of Bendyman, Metalface and Firewoman was the highlight of their week. As you can probably tell by the made-up names (at least I assume they’re made-up – it’s often hard to tell) I was not one of those children. So it came as something of a relief when I learnt that the latest in the X-Men franchise (the fifth, no less) was to be one of those ‘origins’ stories where we find out how the superheroes come into being.
The story begins in Poland in 1942 with the young Erik Lensherr (Bill Milner) in a prisoner of war camp in which Dr Sebastian Schmidt (Bacon) has noticed the boy’s extraordinary powers of metal manipulation. Meanwhile, in Westchester, New York, young Charles Xavier uses his mindreading powers to discover that a young girl who has broken into his house called Raven is in fact a shape-shifter. Xavier (McAvoy) grows up to study genetics at Oxford University whereupon he is hired by CIA agent Moria MacTaggert (Byrne) who has witnessed some mutants herself while trying to find out why Schmidt (now known as Shaw) is talking to members of the US security council about nuclear weapons.
Set in 1962, this leads to a kind of parallel Cuban missile crisis. With World War III suddenly a very real possibility, the Man in Black (Platt) allows Xavier, Raven (Lawrence), Lensherr (now played by Fassbender) and fellow mutant Hank (Hoult) to find other mutants in an attempt to keep the peace against Shaw and his cronies – Emma Frost (Jones), Azazel (Flemyng) and Riptide (Álex González).
If this all sounds a bit plot-heavy and Marvel comic standard for your liking then fear not. As with all good origin films (Batman Begins springs to mind), in X-Men: First Class director Vaughn takes his time to introduce the characters and provide not only a good smattering of their super powers but more importantly the motivations behind their thoughts and deeds. Lensherr simply wants revenge on Shaw and it’s the constant sparring between him and Xavier that adds a wonderful frisson of tension to proceedings, especially when you consider they’re on the same side.
Lawrence’s Raven is also given a chunky role as the (perhaps unsurprisingly) appearance-obsessed mutant and her relationship with Hank is an interesting sub-plot about acceptance and mirrors the race issues of the era in the US in particular. It’s to the credit of not only the actors and Vaughn as director but also to the team of writers who have crafted a very solid drama, even before all of the special effects wizardry – which is plentiful and thrilling – come into play. The action is only exciting and the jeopardy only exists because we care about the characters.
Crucial also to the success of the film is the script which is not only beautifully paced but also contains some very funny, character-driven lines. Of the leading men, McAvoy is perhaps the least showy but is nevertheless excellent as the quirky, brilliant telepath while Kevin Bacon does menacing superbly as the megalomaniac hell bent on global supremacy. But it’s without a doubt Fassbender whose matinee good looks and sheer charisma who steals the show (even if his accent does slip rather alarmingly towards the end).
Overall this is a triumph, a story of inner and outer conflicts, strong characters, a coherent plot, a few laughs and some good old-fashioned action and adventure. Blockbuster of the summer? Hell yeah.