The cinematic graveyards are full of well intended prequels that either died in their conception, production or on their first viewing. X-Men: First Class (2011) bucks the trend and provides a welcome insight into the main characters of the expanding series. Matthew Vaughn - who was originally meant to direct X-Men: The Last Stand - finally gets to sit in the directors chair and it turns out to he a surprisingly steady mutant debut for the talented Brit. This was only to be expected with Bryan Singer back on board as producer, he also provided the story outline with Sheldon Turner.
Essentially X-Men: First Class is the story of two friends (Xavier and Magnito/Lehnsherr) that drift apart in every sense as they come to terms with their powers. Throughout the movie we get to peel back the layers - we already know how it ends up and so it's all a bit Obi-Wan and Anakin in that respect.
Singer picks up the story in 1944 at a German concentration camp in Poland. An insignificant and scrawny Eric Lehnsherr bends the iron gates with his mind as his parents are led away. We then meet up with Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon taking a break from those dreadful phone adverts!). Bacon delights in the role of a mutated Nazi Scientist with an American twang - to his eternal credit he resists chewing gum or shouting Yeehaw. It's a safe piece of storytelling that allows fact to merge with extravagant fiction from a sound historical perspective. Schmidt tries to develop the young Lehnsherr's power and make him his unwilling protege. But don't expect kid gloves, Schmidt shows no mercy, irrespective of Lehnsherr fragility or tender age, in fact he is quite ruthless in the pursuit of his own interests. Young Magneto is deeply scarred by the death of his parents and this obviously has a lasting impact on the impressionable mutant, sowing the seeds of revenge for a future encounter.
We then experience the contrasting life of the privileged and untroubled genius Charles Xavier. He lives a reasonably uneventful life compared to the one endured by Lensherr. Fast forward 18 years to follow them to a point in the film where they begin to divide and stand against each other like two bargain hunters on the first day of the sales in a lingerie department.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy) are employed by a seedy division of the CIA in the cold war era of the 1960's. Tensions between the USA and Russia were at an all time high when Cuba agreed to let the Ruskies put missiles in Uncle Sam's back yard (this is not a euphemism). Yet again the writers cleverly use real historical events to reshape the drama, which works like a dream. Magneto & Xavier are sent to locate Nasty Nazi Schmidt, now going by the name of Sebastian Shaw, and pursue him to the ends of the Earth. Schmidt/Shaw/Bacon - sounds like a Law Firm for personal injuries - is busying himself with a group of evil mutants and planning the imminent demise of all humanity.
You certainly need a valid passport with this film as we whizz off from Poland and take in Russia, Argentina and America, we even get to stick our noses through customs to cast an eye over the Swiss terrain. If only Michael Palin could sprout wings, this would cover all angles.
Just like the previous three movies X-Men: First Class endeavours to cram in as much as possible. This approach to film-making is potentially fatal as there's no let up for the viewer, but I like this particular style of storytelling, nothing worse than a batch of pauses in the yarn that leave you wondering what time the next bus comes along or if the local curry house will still be open.
The performances of Fassbender and McAvoy are magnificent and compelling, but it's down to the villain to bring home the Bacon (really big pun). He revels in the role of the dastardly Shaw, even his breath seems evil! Some of the other characters seem a little less defined and are more of a hastily drawn sketch but they are only the frills around the edges of the main story and dutifully serve their purpose to the best of their ability and as the script demands. We do however get to see Jennifer Lawrence, before her lead role in The Hunger Games, as the sleek and sensitive Mystique, which did her no harm what so ever. It probably was one of the reasons that she is much in demand and you have to admire the performance.
The main characters are developing into those from the previous films (that's confusing?) and as such they are works in progress, so don't go instantly judging their behaviour against the previous three. At the time the cracks appear in Xavier and Magneto's friendship hostility is growing towards the mutant community from their human counterparts. Leading us nicely into the original trilogy.
Director Matthew Vaughn handles the content in a superbly sensitive and respectful way, whilst injecting new vitality and excitement into the proceedings. He excels with the action sequences and you suspect was the first to get in to catch a glimpse of the rushes.
I think it's best to judge each individual installment in the series rather than using each as a yardstick against the previous, and by doing so X-Men: First Class fairs incredibly well. It's a slick addition, full of everything that we love about the 'Xtraordinary' X-Men.
Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter
Tomorrow Tom completes the collection with X-Men: Days Of Future Past.