Movies: X-men: First Class ***
(12A, GENERAL RELEASE)
Quietly and steadily, the X-Men franchise has clocked up a tidy $1.5billion at the global box office with four workmanlike but well-crafted action films. In this, the fifth, series producer Lauren Shuler Donner and her writers have taken the brave step of going for a prequel, for X-Men: First Class investigates the origins of the X-Men and their founder Professor Charles Xavier. Specifically the film examines the troubled relationship between Xavier and his nemesis Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr, and when we first meet them both are small boys.
Charles Xavier has grown up in an atmosphere of refinement and privilege in 1940s New York, but from an early age has been aware of his telepathic powers. He's a mutant and has always assumed he's the only one, but when he meets a girl his age called Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who can change her shape and appearance at will, he realises he's not alone. Young Erik Lehnsherr is a mutant too, but he's also a Jew -- not the best career move in 1940s Germany. After being sent to a concentration camp, Eric catches the eye of a Nazi scientist called Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who spots the boy's telekinetic abilities.
In an incident that will scar Eric for life, Shaw tries to force the boy to move a coin with his mind by holding a gun to his mother's head. She gets shot, and Eric grows up a very angry mutant.
The adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) first runs into Xavier (James McAvoy) while on the trail of Shaw, who's now in South America. Shaw and a merry band of mutants, called the Hellfire Club, have decided to play the Russians and Americans off each other and start a nuclear war that will wipe out humanity and leave the world to the mutants.
Xavier is working with the CIA to stop them, and he persuades a reluctant Erik to join him. They also recruit a group of young and untrained mutants, but Xavier and Erik differ sharply about their tactics in particular and mankind in general, whom Erik considers an irretrievably bad lot. The Cuban missile crisis forms the lively backdrop for a spectacular showdown between Shaw, Xavier, the Russians, the Americans and Erik.
All of that sounds terribly complicated and grandiose, but in fact once it settles down X-Men: First Class is a lively, cheerful romp. The script has fun filling in the backstories of X-Men regulars such as Mystique and The Beast, and the use of actual 1960s geopolitics gives substance to a story that might otherwise have been slight.
The worst thing one of these superhero romps can do is take itself too seriously, but X-Men: First Class does its best to punctuate the action with jokes, most of them courtesy of Charles Xavier's rather prim and proper personality. James McAvoy was an inspired choice to take on the role played with such economy of effort by Patrick Stewart in the other films, and in fact the general high calibre of the actors on display makes X-Men: First Class a surprisingly enjoyable watch.
Michael Fassbender is suitably tortured and conflicted as Erik Lehnsherr, Kevin Bacon is a satisfyingly unctuous villain, Rose Byrne and January Jones provide the glamour, and it's nice to see Jennifer Lawrence (who so impressed in Winter's Bone) having a bit of fun in a lighter role. Oliver Platt brings colour to a potentially bland supporting turn, and Hugh Jackman makes a brief but salty cameo as the predictably grumpy Wolverine.
All in all English director Matthew Vaughn handles a complex assignment with skill, providing enough quiet pauses to counteract the action scenes and giving his impressive cast sufficient room to do their stuff. This isn't the end of it, one suspects -- although X-Men: First Class is officially a prequel to the first film in the series, I imagine the producers might fancy squeezing yet another egg out of the golden goose.
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