X MEN: FIRST CLASS
DIRECTED BY Matthew Vaughn
STARRING James McAvoy, Michael Fassbinder
OPENS JUNE 1 // CERT 12A // 131 MINS
As evangelists, millenarians and scholars have learned to their disappointment, predicting the apocalypse has never been an entirely accurate business.
After The Rapture failed to occur as he prophesied on May 21 this year, Oakland pastor Harold Camping is now a man who discovers himself, quite literally, with some unexpected days in lieu. He might, perhaps, choose to spend part of his free time until the revised date for doomsday, October 21, catching up on some of the films he never expected to see. One of those could well be X Men: First Class, during which pastor Camping may recognise a kindred spirit in Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw – a former Nazi collaborator who plans to immamentise an eschaton of his very own by initiating World War III, purging the planet of us unworthy human folks.
Shaw is a mutant, who together with Emma Frost, the White Queen, heads up the Hellfire Club – a band of rotters intent on wreaking havoc on the world in 1962. As a setting, 1962 offers a potentially rewarding context. A pivotal year for the Civil Rights movement, the point is duly made in Matthew Vaughn’s prequel that the X Men and their fellow mutants are a repressed and discriminated against minority. But – fa la la – 1962 was also the year Dr No was released and Cathy Gale became a regular fixture in The Avengers. Inevitably, such frothy, pop culture landmarks exert greater influence here.
The story pivots on the uneasy friendship between Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbinder), a Holocaust survivor. Both are mutants: Xavier is a telepath while Lensherr can manipulate metal. Xavier sees the potential for mutants and humans to co-exist; Lensherr, mindful of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, wishes to protect mutants from a similar fate by any means necessary.
These are basically the same arguments that ran between the two mutants in the first three X Men movies, when Xavier and Lensherr were played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
As their younger selves, McAvoy and Fassbinder stretch the material as far as they can. Fassbinder is the more compelling presence. When we first meet him, he’s travelling round Europe, hunting down and killing Nazi war criminals. It’s pulpy stuff – Bond meets The Boys From Brazil, if you like – with Lenscherr played with unforgiving and ruthless efficiency by Fassbinder. McAvoy brings some rakish humour, early on, to the otherwise sincere and serious Xavier.
It’s hard, though, to find much to say about the rest of the cast. There’s good names here – Oliver Platt, Skins’ Nicholas Hoult, Mad Men’s January Jones, Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence – but frequently they’re given too little to work with to make much of an impression. There’s a half-dozen more mutants, but their names and powers are telegraphed in so briskly, I’m at a loss to tell you who they were or what they do. Matthew Vaughn, who had a lot of fun last year playing around with superheroes in Kick Ass, does a decent enough job moving the film along, though the climactic stand-off between mutants and the American and Russian navies just outside Cuba goes on way too long, gets crushed by bombastic effects.
The problem, principally, is repetition. When you’ve seen one brightly coloured mutant in spandex with a stupid name kicking the shit out of another brightly coloured mutant in spandex with a stupid name, there’s very little more you can really do. Apart from introduce more mutants, or as is the case here – younger versions of the same mutants.
That this is the fifth X Men film is part of a broader issue in Hollywood. This year, they’ve honestly gone batshit crazy for sequels: we’re on the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, the fifth Fast & Furious and Final Destination, the seventh Planet Of The Apes and an eighth Harry Potter film.
You might wonder where it’ll all end. According to Harold Camping, on October 21. Just after remakes of Footloose and The Thing, and the same week of Paranormal Activity 3.