As X-Men: Apocalypse hits the cinemas this week, I look at 2011’s reboot of the long running franchise.
After X-Men and X2, Bryan Singer passed on the opportunity to complete the X-Men trilogy, instead heading off to make Superman Returns. After the disappointment most felt about X-Men: The Last Stand, and the absolute mess that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and of course, Singer’s own misfire with Superman Returns), Singer returned to produce and co-write the next film in the series. This gave a much needed sense of direction to the franchise, which was in danger of seriously losing its way. He also brought on board Matthew Vaughn as director, who had been linked with The Last Stand but had made the excellent Kick-Ass instead, and his writing partner Jane Goldman.
The idea for a X-Men prequel had been floating around for some time, and if the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film had done well, it would have led to X-Men Origins: Magneto, which instead stalled in the pre-production stages. This film combined elements of both, and served as more of a reboot than just a prequel.
The film starts with the same footage as the original X-Men, with a young Erik Lensherr being separated from his parents in a concentration camp, unleashing his latent powers. This time however we see Dr Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) overlooking the incident. He calls Erik into his plush office, and asks him to move a coin on his desk. Schmidt distances himself from the Nazis, claiming to be just a scientist interested in studying genes, and that their goal of “Blue eyes? Blonde hair?” is “Pathetic”. He does however admire their methods, and so threatens to shoot Erik’s mother in front of him. When he still can’t move the coin, Schmidt shoots Mrs Lensherr, causing the rage filled Erik to unleash his powers. He crushes two guards’ skulls and trashes all of Schmidt’s medical equipment (which is revealed in a brilliant cut shot juxtaposing his wood paneled office with the clinical white of the lab just next door).
At the same time, young Charles Xavier sees his mother in the kitchen of their stately home, quickly sussing out that she is not actually his mother, as she would never set foot in the kitchen. That is when Raven reveals herself and her ability to shape shift, and Xavier welcomes her into his home. He gains her trust by talking to her telepathically, establishing a bond between the two as they both realise they aren’t alone in having special talents.
That is one of the things this film does so well, bringing together a group of people who are alienated by their differences. Raven and Charles (Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy) grow up together, and we next see them in 1962, as Charles is on the verge of completing his Masters from Oxford University. This Charles Xavier is much different from the learned Professor X, hitting on a girl with different coloured eyes with some well-honed patter, only for a slightly petulant Raven to imitate the girl, causing Charles to make a swift getaway, scolding Raven for being childish. Again, another of the films strong points – these characters aren’t the characters we’ve seen in the previous movies, at least not yet. He is contacted by Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, taking over the role from Olivia Williams in X-Men: The Last Stand, although she is a CIA agent here, rather than a geneticist), who has come across a group of people with special powers while investigating the Hellfire Club, and makes his way to the CIA to help them find their mysterious and politically influential leader Sebastien Shaw.
While Charles is enjoying student life in 60’s Oxford, Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) is on a revenge mission, hunting down Dr Schmidt. Firstly we see him pulling the metal fillings out of a Swiss banker who is holding Nazi gold, then tracking down a German pig farmer and tailor to an isolated pub in rural Argentina. This finally gives him a solid clue to the whereabouts of Schmidt, leading Erik to Miami, at the same time as Charles leads the CIA to Shaw. Dr Schmidt has become Sebastian Shaw, with the power to absorb and emit kinetic energy, and is using his group to edge politicians on both sides of the Cold War closer to nuclear war, with the aim of unlocking the genetic mutations of the whole world.
Charles saves Erik when his need for revenge almost leads to him drowning. Again, Erik had thought he was alone in having special gifts, and so meeting Charles forms a bond between the two. Charles and Erik then meet Dr Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who has built Cerebro, and the two agree to see if they can find any more mutants in the world, without any CIA involvement. This leads to an awesome montage of Erik and Charles travelling across the globe, inviting those with special powers to join them. It ends with a brilliant cameo that I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen.
This group is taken to an off-site CIA facility, and we have another splendid moment with the young mutants laughing and joking over pizza and coke. Its a scene that feels very real, like that first day at uni were everyone is nervous and shy, before warming to each other. The fun doesn’t last long, as Shaw and the Hellfire Club attack the bulding, and the remains of the group have to find somewhere else to stay. Luckily, Charles has a rather suitable place: Xavier Mansion.
We then get a joyous training montage, as each of the team learns to control and use their powers: Banshee learns to use his high pitch screech and a special wingsuit to fly; McCoy unleashes his full athletic prowess; and Havok begins to aim his energy burst with more accuracy. Most impressively though, Erik manages to harness his powers without simply using rage. There’s a touching moment when Charles finds Erik’s brightest memory, allowing Erik to access even greater strength, as he moves a distant satellite dish when we had seen him struggle to move a gun in a man’s hand.
Meanwhile, Shaw has manipulated the USSR into putting missiles in Cuba, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. With both sides seemingly heading towards nuclear war, it’s left up to Xavier’s team to try and defuse the situation.
As you might be able to tell, I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class. Michael Fassbender is fantastic as the angry Erik Lensherr. To see a line from another Usher, I could watch an entire film of him as Fassbender hunting Nazis. Similarly, James McAvoy is a lot of fun as the young Charles Xavier, before showing glimpses of the Professor he would become, giving guidance not just to the youngsters, but also to Erik. He still shows plenty of faults, being condescending towards Raven and dismissive of her concerns. The relationship between the two feels real, and despite having different aims and methods, we can see why these two immensely powerful men would become genuine friends.
I also feel that there was the perfect number of mutants introduced. This keeps the pace of the movie up, with very little down time. It never feels overcrowded or rushed, everyone gets a moment to shine. Apart from a few superfluous flying shots towards the end that seem to be included for the sake of having some flying scenes, everyone’s power has a legitimate use in the film. It was an impressive feat when Avenger’s Assemble pulled it off, and the same must be said here.
Finally, it needs saying that it was a good choice to buck the trend and not go for a dark and gritty reboot. The success they had with this film (both artistically and at the box office) makes the decision to take the Fantastic Four down that road even more baffling. Vaughn took his artistic cues from the James Bond films of the 1960s, and the period setting is lavishly enjoyable – a phrase that doesn’t really make sense, but I’m going to use it anyway! I suppose the darkness that is prevalent in X-Men and X2 means that this was an easy choice to make to differentiate this film from them.
The uniforms the team wears is a symbol of this change: the idea of the heroes wearing yellow and blue was ridiculous back in 2000, so much so that it was a joke in the actual film. But here, the black leather outfits are replaced by some much closer to the original comic uniform. That shows how far superhero films came in the decade since the first appearance of Charles Xavier and company – how much comic book films have moved into the mainstream of cinema. Superheroes don’t have to be made to look cool anymore. Superheroes are cool. The X-Men films have done a lot to facilitate this acceptance, and X-Men: First Class is a fine addition to their ranks.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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