The Marvel franchise finds new energy and charm with a stylish 1960s period setting, well staged action and fine performances from an impressive ensemble cast.
Opening with the same scene as the 2000 film, an extended prologue explores the formative years of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), as they discover their special powers.
Moving forward to the early 1960s, we see how the original X-Men group come together as a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) recruits Xavier and a team of mutants to help them fight the mysterious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who seeks to exploit Cold War tensions for his own gain.
Along the way they recruit Lehnsherr (for whose deeply personal reasons for joining the mission) and several other mutants (Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones and Zoë Kravitz), whilst Shaw has his own team of cohorts (including January Jones, Jason Flemyng).
The most striking thing about the film is the way it erases the bad memories of the shambolic Wolverine prequel – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – and the unsatisfactory third film – X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – which both suffered from the absence of director Bryan Singer (who went off to do Superman Returns instead).
He was back on board as producer here and although the screenplay is credited to four writers, director Matthew Vaughn wisely taps into the vibe of Singer’s first film, which effectively blended issues, emotions and action.
That in turn reflected the original comics, which were forged in the social tumult of the 1960s, so there is something appropriate about seeing these characters brought to the screen in the decade which gave birth to them.
Despite the large ensemble cast, the heart of this film is the relationship between Eric (the future Magneto) and Charles (the future Professor X) and the casting of Fassbender and McAvoy is inspired.
Making the roles their own, they bring surprising levels of gravitas and emotion to their superhero bromance, elevating the material above most comic book adaptations and providing a solid foundation for the wider story.
The supporting cast is also good, with Lawrence (as the future Mystique) standing out in particular and there is a nice smattering of veteran actors from genre movies in cameo roles, including Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside and James Remar.
Moving at a healthy pace, the story takes its cues from classic Bond, with globe-trotting action set-pieces linked to a narrative involving a super-villain, which ends up in a climactic showdown.
Although the action and visuals are handled well, it says a great deal about the film that the most effective thing is the relationships that lie at the heart of the film.
The villains are a little one note at times (especially January Jones) and Bacon too much like a Bond villain for comfort.
But overall the conflicts are well played, whilst the ethical dilemas of the mutants (should they join or fight a suspicious society?) hover effectively in the background.
It doesn’t approach the heights of X-Men 2 (2003), still the best of the series, but fans of the franchise might notice the narrative parallels between this prequel and Singer’s first two films: a rouge outsider joins forces with other mutants to fight a common enemy; and opposing mutants band together despite their differences.
My main reservation plot wise was something that happens at the climax (which I can’t reveal for spoiler reasons), suffice to say that a particular character develops a bit too early.
The period detail is impressive, although in keeping with a stylised fantasy version of the 60s, and the production design effectively channels the Cold War era, with films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and You Only Live Twice (1968) being a marked influences on the design.
There is a distinct influence of Mad Men in the air with casting of Jones, the 1960s setting and the resulting costumes, although it never overpowers the material itself.
Blending the Bond influence with the events of Cuban missile crisis also feels appropriate given how often 007’s adventures were inspired by Cold War intrigue.
As you might expect for a film of this scale, the production design, costumes and visual effects are impressive, although at times (especially the climax) the CGI is a little over used.
Plus, for a film so faithful to the original trilogy there appears to be a continuity error so glaring, I’m assuming it must be deliberate (email me for further details, as it is firmly in spoiler territory).
In an age of prequels, sequels and remakes, perhaps the best thing about X-Men First Class is that it feels like a fresh spin on the comic book formula.
There is enough here for both the mass audience and experienced comic book geeks to enjoy (one ‘Easter Egg’ cameo is sure to bring the house down).
When this project was first announced, it seemed like Fox was just rehashing a cash-cow franchise, but credit must go to the studio for trusting filmmakers to revisit the essence of the original comics and translate them into a deeply satisfying summer movie.
X-Men First Class opens on Wednesday 1st June