X-Men: First Class (2011)

Origin stories are tough nuts to crack. Just ask George Lucas. Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood, whose 2009 fling with the X-verse endeavoured to fill in knuckle-clawed Wolvie’s back story, but met with more howls than hurrahs.

Could X-Men: First Class be a case of second time lucky, as Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn takes a root through the X-Men’s, uh, roots? Or is history doomed to repeat itself? Well, hardly. Vaughn’s X genesis is easily the classiest, most entertaining X film since X2. Impeccably cast, incisive in its splicing of history with an alt mutant narrative, and neatly balancing its spectacle with its story beats, it’s a stunning achievement – especially considering Vaughn had only a year in which to deliver.

It starts with the script. Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman all but throws out the kid-friendly First Class comic, retaining the title alone and penning a daring historical mutation that pitches the Cold War at a sci-fi tilt. The year is 1963. Bit of rough Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting former Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who killed Erik’s mother when he was a child. Meanwhile, cheeky boffin Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just gotten his doctorate. When the paths of these two figures cross, you better hold onto your hat – especially after they encounter CIA Agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), who’s tracking the mysterious Hellfire Club, which involves Shaw and his mysterious sidekick Emma Frost (January Jones).

Foregoing the barbed, post-modern bite of Kick-Ass, Vaughn and Goldman have forged a sophisticated period superhero film that fits right in with the aesthetic of Bryan Singer’s two X outings, despite its historical setting. That’s mostly because the ‘60s influence is never exploited as a miserable, Austin Powers-style gimmick, Vaughn instead hand-picking period aesthetics to weave together something richly tangible.

That most stylish of eras permeates every detail; the set design is extravagant (the deliciously sleazy Hellfire Club) and the costumes to die for (Emma Frost’s bustilicious white fantasy get-up). There’s even playful split-screen edits, hilarious throwback dialogue (“groovy,” burrs McAvoy), not to mention a twangy, achingly cool score that recalls the best of old school Bond.

Speaking of, Bond is an obvious touchstone. Vaughn once wanted to reboot the spy franchise but never got the chance, and here he seizes the opportunity to position Magneto as a roguish smooth operator (“I basically moulded a young Magneto on a young Sean Connery,” he’s said in interviews). Easily 007’s equal in the charisma stakes, Fassbender rises to the tricky task of speaking in his native German and Russian (though at times fudging an English accent), and positions Magneto as a powerful, volatile force to be reckoned with.

His relationship with Charles/Professor X was always going to provide the, uh, meat of the story, and the boys don’t let us down. McAvoy in particular excels in this incarnation of the well-known Professor (most memorably played with stoic poise by Patrick Stewart), both endearingly emotional and surprisingly flirty – as unstuffy as he is warm and funny.

What of the young mutants promised by that ‘First Class’ subtitle? All are spirited additions, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique getting the most screentime, though she’s often sadly lumbered with self-hate issues that err on the side of repetitiveness. That said, Nicolas Hoult’s Beast is enjoyably nerdy, while Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee gets all the laughs. And the FC’s obligatory training montage is also one of its standout moments – a fun, flashy segment that zings with energy.

The involvement of the younglings, though, means that the typical X-movie niggle of short-changing secondary characters is still present and correct. Falling prey to the ‘ensemble movie’ curse are villain sidekicks Riptide and Azazel, who barely utter two words between them, while Emma Frost is a fantastic evil Bond girl who’s given no backstory whatsoever. Still, it’s a miracle that Vaughn has managed to create something as coherent as this without sacrificing more of his players. Everybody gets their moment – including the one-dimensional Azazel in a fight-scene reminiscent of X2’s zippy opening.

Vaughn summed it up best himself when he called First Class “X-Men meets Bond”. With Kevin Bacon something of a revelation as a preening, mad baddie, and McAvoy and Fassbender sharing near nuclear levels of chemistry, it’s a busy, gratifying return to form for the X films that ends in a gut-punchingly effective climax. As the credits swirl in a giddy ‘60s motif to the reverberating drawl of those Bondian guitars, you’ll be begging for a sequel. Yes, this X prequel really is (groan) first class. 4/5