Must try harder
In many ways, X-Men: First Class is a fanboy's wet dream. It's full of increasingly obscure mutants, explanations for every little detail you've never wondered about (Why is Xavier in a wheelchair? Where did Magneto's helmet come from? Why the fuck are they called X-Men?), cameo appearances (one series regular has an inspired few seconds on screen) and all manner of other things designed to cause nerdgasms. Whether it's loyal to the comics or not doesn't really matter: this is a valiant effort to put the franchise back on track after a certain trilogy closer and a woeful Origin story. Shame, then, they kind of forgot to build a good film around the good intentions.
I'm not a negative person, so let me begin with the positives. First: a synopsis. Superpowered Charles Xavier (aka Professor X aka James McAvoy) meets superpowered Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto aka Michael Fassbender) through a series of events involving the CIA and nuclear submarines. They throw together a ragtag group of young mutants - including Charles' old friend Raven (aka Mystique aka Jennifer Lawerence) - to put a stop to the dastardly plans of a one Sebastian Shaw (aka Kevin Bacon) and his equally ragtag group of evil mutants. It's also the 1960s.
That last point is important, because it's by far the best thing about the film. The set designers, cinematographer and, of course, director Matthew Vaughn (the man who impressed with Stardust and cooked up something semi-interesting with the flawed Kick Ass) do a wonderful job in conjuring up some high-camp retro chic. There are super naff war rooms, epically cheesy maps (you'll see what I mean - it involves a smirking Bacon) and ludicrous integrations of real-life historical events like The Cuban Missile Crisis. All this is rendered in glorious primary colours - a true rarity in this age of blockbusters filmed in various tones of grey, brown and black. It's a brilliantly silly setting, reminiscent at times of everything from James Bond to Mad Men. And the Cold War stuff ties nicely into the Magneto vs Prof. X ideology conflict that defines this film and the franchise as a whole. The film also introduces us to an adult Erik in a series of tightly directed revenge scenes - violent, blackly comic and a confidence lacking in many of the events that follow. And , impressively, Vaughn and co. manage to work in the single best 'fuck' a PG-13 film has ever allowed.
The cast are largely impressive, although with a few notable weakpoints. Fassbender is suitably growly as an angry Magneto, his Irish accent proudly yet awkwardly shining through in a series of third act monologues. McAvoy is surprisingly charismatic, although his upbeat performance lacks depth. Minor characters are good for the most part. Bacon camps it up and while Jennifer Lawerence obviously isn't as impressive as she was in Winter's Bone, she certainly has screen presence. Rose Byrne (playing fan favourite Moira McTaggert) and Oliver Platt are good but underused as CIA agents. The 'minor' mutants are a mixed bunch, though - Banshee, Azazel, Angel, Darwin and others given little of note to do. The obvious weakpoint is January Jones as Emma Frost. It's the exact same performance as her Betty Draper one; where her ice coldness worked in Mad Men, ironically playing a character named Frost shows this act up as one of distressingly limited range.
Mostly positive so far though. Didn't I give out about the film earlier? Yes, and with good cause. There's one crucial element that knocks this film down from something great to something barely above average: the script. The four writers (including Jane Goldman, who seems to get a lot of press coverage based solely on the fact that she's Jonathan Ross' wife, which says a lot about the sad plight of screenwriters) do an absolutely dreadful job in keeping it all together. Yes, everything you've never cared about is explained in great depth, but in a completely incredible way. There are dreadful scenes where characters sit around and discuss the illogical nicknames they're known by. Painfully obvious plot points are rubbed in through cheesy dialogue, overemphasis and poor delivery. It falls into even more obnoxious pratfalls at times - the harsh treatment of the 'token black' characters is borderline offensive.
Other areas are equally mixed. The CGI is dreadful. The character design ranges from good (Azazel) to bad (Beast), and most characters bar the central few are underused. The film ultimately descends into a lazy CGI-fest, lacking the colourful delivery that made other moments stand out. To be honest, it's the kind of film the more I think about the more I find to dislike, and the less I find to defend. The truth is I did enjoy it when I watched it a week ago, but since then the flaws keep popping into my mind over the positives.
It has been suggested (box office dependent) that this is merely the opening act of a new trilogy. Ditching the pointless need to explain every uninteresting detail and instead focusing on telling a silly story in a fun setting while retaining the youthful, talented cast and awesome set designers does show potential. First Class does put the X-Men franchise slightly back on track, but that wasn't hard. What will be hard is crafting something really special out of the foundations laid down here. Hopefully the maps won't be the best part of Second Class.