Thursday, 2 June 2011

X-Men: First Class review. Best superhero movie ever?

You should never lose faith in films. After X-Men 2 elevated the franchise to new heights, it all crashed down when Bryan Singer left the directing duties to Brett Ratner who ruined everything with a loud and substandard blockbuster that eschewed all the originality of the previous films, and managed to bungle the most interesting storyline of the comic books, the creation then death of Phoenix.

So when I heard than an X-men reboot/prequel was in the works, featuring a younger cast, I feared the worst. It smacked of focus groups and the willingness to milk a moribund franchise. Yet things were looking up when writing/directing duo Jane Goldman/Matthew Vaughan were put at the helms. After the uneven but promising Stardust, and the excellent Kick-ass, this showed the studio was willing to take some risks. And the release of the stylish first stills and trailer amped up the interest.

And now that I have finally seen it, I can say this prequel/reboot is such a stirling achievement at every level that I do not know where to begin. It is certainly up there with Spiderman 2 and X-men 2 as one of the best Marvel adaptations. I just love the way the director decided that the fourth outing of a franchise had every rights to be a lot more ambitious and with more depth than any other films in the serie before, rather than going with the usual law of diminishing returns. And he shows that blockbusters, just like Inception last year, can deliver at so many levels, in the form of an exciting yet smart and sophisticated entertainment.

First of all, the 60's setting works brilliantly. What could have easily become at best a distraction, at worst an Austin Powers-type spoof, is seamlessly integrated with a great attention of details, which gives the film an elegance and style that no superhero movie has achieved so far, or even bothered trying, and offers a few nods towards the James Bond of the 60's, without being too referential.

Make no mistake, this is a true summer blockbuster, with a few outstanding big action set pieces and special effects. Yet the script, while gripping us from the first minute and never letting our attention drop, is so incredibly rich, allowing for its characters to breathe, and with action scenes that are always at the service of the story and not the other way around. In these days of frenetic editing and bloated, CGI-heavy blockbusters with incomprehensible scripts (I am talking to you, Pirates of the Caribbean!), this is a welcome respite.

If anything, the prequel probably has an unfair advantage. While many superhero first films suffer from the curse of having to spend a lot of time with exposition, this one, while still being an origin story of sorts, has the benefit of its audience knowing exactly the fate of most of its characters. It is what gives it its poignancy, for example seeing the growing yet doomed friendship between Professor X and Magneto as well as the already apparent cracks within the mutant faction. While completely different in style, it is still an excellent companion piece to the Bryan Singer movies that preceded it.

And to top it up, director Matthew Vaughan is served by an excellent cast. The majority of its supporting cast has a lot more presence and a better storyline than their predecessors were allowed on the original X-men trilogy. Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Beast shine in particular, seeing their characters a lot more fleshed out this time around. And as the main baddie, Kevin Bacon as the suave and charismatic Sebastian Shaw, oozes charm and menace, offering a side of him we had rarely seen before. (Also watch out for a couple of cameos that had the audience in stitches)

James McAvoy, who I have personally found irritating in most of his films, deliver a more subdued and selfless performance that suits his character. But this truly is Michael Fassbender's triumph, who, as Magneto is, well, magnetic! (sorry). In a character which is not too dissimilar to the cruel and darker James Bond in his early days (and Fassbender as a new James Bond, now there is a thought!), he offers a standout performance, riddled with inner conflicts and barely contained rage.

If I have a few niggles, I would say that the British director has less time for the secondary villains, which is a bit of a shame especially for January Jones as Emma Frost, who delivers an excellent performance as a sort of Emma Peel/ice queen crossover, yet could have done with more scenes. And despite the 135 minutes running time, I did feel the climatic scene was a little rushed. If anything, the film could have happily be stretched a little bit more altogether. But this is just minor.

What might have seemed like a gamble is already started to pay off. With 91% positive reviews on Rotten tomatoes, and with the biggest screen in London I saw it in tonight absolutely rammed, this is looking promising. And we can only hope this gets developed as a new trilogy to bridge it with the original one. As for Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman, new X-men trilogy aside, I just cannot wait to see what they will do next.

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