This 1960s-set prequel is an anachronistic, bombastic but amusing fantasy, writes Donald Clarke
IT WAS beginning to look as if the good people behind the X-Men franchise were intent on immolating their own moderately engaging series. After all, they did hire Brett Ratner – one of those directors whose name has evolved into a pejorative adjective – to direct the lobotomised, dishonestly titled, plain Ratneresque X-Men: The Last Stand.
Well, the studio has made an effort to restore a degree of respectability. It’s hired a mildly voguish director and, following current practices and procedures, dragged the story back to its origins. If there were, dear reader, any way of avoiding the dread word “reboot”, then we would gladly oblige.
Matthew Vaughn, creator of the bafflingly lauded Kick-Ass, has been handed the megaphone and likeable young movie stars such as Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence have been squeezed into the unflattering Lycra suits.
We begin with another wholly inappropriate prologue set in a concentration camp: Theodor Adorno may have overstated the case when he said there could be “no poetry after Auschwitz”, but we might reasonably have expected a moratorium on superhero adventures set in that place. Then, thank goodness, the film settles down to tell a story that rubs up against the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The young Charles Xavier (McAvoy), not quite a professor yet, is teaching some sort of quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo at Oxford. Eric Lehnsherr (Fassbender), whose skill in manipulating metals will later attract the moniker Magneto, is touring the world in search of fugitive, still middle-aged Nazis. All significant remaining X-persons later turn up in unfamiliar youthful incarnations.
Dreamed up by Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, the scenario offers a great deal of scope for stylistic flourishes and knowing allusions, not to mention a veritable avalanche of preposterous anachronisms.
Sometimes dallying in Rat Pack territory (we briefly visit Las Vegas in its pre-theme park pomp) and elsewhere nodding towards James Bond (Kevin Bacon’s villain operates from a funky submarine), the film builds upon our era’s weird love affair with the early 1960s and strains that affection close to breaking point. Mad Men’s January Jones, more wooden than a boardroom drinks cabinet, turns up to remind us of the craze’s principal inspiration.
In somewhat perfunctory fashion, the narrative nudges Eric and Charles towards a more than usually secretive wing of the CIA. Recruiting other young mutants to their cause, the improvised team sets out to stop evil Dr Bacon, a former Nazi who refuses to age, from reducing the planet to quiescent rubble.
Here’s the thing. Yes, the picture’s hold on the epoch is very shaky indeed. Xavier uses the word “groovy” – not properly in fashion for a year or two after the events detailed – on at least two occasions. In one silly moment, a young X-Man actually describes another mutant’s costume as “bad-ass”. Uninteresting situations are dismissed with a wildly anachronistic “whatever”.
Still, the melange of slim-suits, cigaretting villains and Cold War paranoia is amusingly maintained throughout First Class’s diverting opening act.
The problems set in when the film becomes X-Men Babies. There are only so many times you can surprise us by revealing that this apparently ordinary chap or that seemingly commonplace chick has the ability to sprout wings, call up typhoons or shoot laser beams from fingernails. By the time we have made our way to that conflagration in the Caribbean, X-Men: First Class – jokes now nudged aside by looming annihilation – looks and sounds like a dozen other overstaffed, overly noisy superhero efforts.
In truth, the film is a very conventional summer potboiler repackaged in reasonably pretty, moderately crisp wrapping paper. In short, not quite groovy enough.
Feelin’ groovy? January Jones and Kevin Bacon in X-Men: First Class