ALTERNATIVE 007


Children of Bond - X-Men: First Class 


The X-Men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 and their comic became one of the most cultish in Marvel's weekly roster of titles. Marvel characters tended to be slightly darker than many of their DC counterparts and X-Men in particular was always laced with social subtext. The bright yellow spandex clad superhero team are made up of humans born with the "X-gene". This gene gives them unique powers and abilities but it also makes them feared by ordinary humans. Those with the X-gene are known as "mutants" and the prejudice they face often holds a mirror to our own reality. Racism, homophobia, McCarthy style witch hunts. A general fear of diversity and anyone that might be different.
Competing for the souls of these mutants are two old friends who are now pitted against one another. The X-Men's kind and wise leader Professor Charles Xavier is a mutant with powerful telepathic abilities and wants humans and mutants to live together in peace. He runs the "Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters" where those with the X-gene are taken in and taught to control their powers with a possible view to becoming X-Men themselves one day.
Magneto is an equally powerful mutant who can control anything metallic with his uncanny magnetic abilities. He survived Auschwitz as a child and is determined that mutants will never be persecuted in the same way that minorities were in Nazi Germany. He has rejected Xavier's stance and believes humans and mutants can never peacefully co-exist. Magneto believes mutants are the superior species and should therefore use their abilities to dominate humans.
The comic was wonderfully strange and ambitious at times and memorable arcs like Chris Claremont's fantastic Dark Phoenix saga are still justifiably acclaimed and celebrated. It was inevitable that the characters would make their way to the big screen one day but it took an awfully long time. An X-Men film was first seriously mooted in the wake of the success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 but only really gained traction in the latter half of the nineties when The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer (who had impressed the studio with his handling of an ensemble cast in that film) was persuaded to sign on as the director. Singer was reluctant at first but after reading some of the more famous comics and learning about the history and themes of X-Men he changed his mind.
Singer's original X-Men (released in 2000) is hardly the greatest superhero film ever made but it is one of the most important and helped pave the way for the superhero festooned cinema age that we live in today. The superhero comic book film boom that Tim Burton's Batman was expected to prompt had simply melted away in the late nineties. Batman & Robin had killed the Batman franchise and films like The Phantom, Steel, Spawn, and Mystery Men failed to find an audience.
Studios now had cold feet about superhero films and Singer had to suffer budget cuts as a consequence - his plans for Danger Room (the holographic suite that the X-Men train in) sequences abandoned along with several characters from the extensive X-Men universe he had intended to use. The major casualty was Beast although he did turn up in the third film in the end. X-Men was still though a critical and commercial success and comic book superhero films were suddenly in fashion again. Within a few years they were everywhere (Hulk, The Punisher, Daredevil, Hellboy etc) and the huge success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man ensured that this time they were here to stay.
In 2003 there was X2 - which was very good. X2 has more action than X-Men and feels like a more ambitious film. It also expands the X-Men universe and gives the actors more to do. It isn't Aliens or The Godfather Part II but it does improve upon the original and manages to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of making Alan Cumming almost bearable. X-Men 3: The Last Stand was then released in 2006. This is a film largely reviled by fanboys for two reasons. First of all it was directed by Brett Ratner (the man behind those dreadful Rush Hour films). Ratner (who seems fairly disgraced these days) is just one of those directors who is always regarded to be a bit naff and rubbish. He could make Wild Strawberries and no one would give him any credit for it. The second reason why X-Men 3 is disliked is because it bungles a chance to do the legendary Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics.
In 2011, there was a prequel/reboot to the franchise with X-Men: First Class - directed by Matthew Vaughn. Mathew Vaughn was actually contracted to direct the previous film X-Men 3: The Last Stand at one point but left because he didn't like the way the studio were trying to make the film so quickly. Vaughn even cast a couple actors before he departed. Kelsey Grammer is an inspired choice as Dr Henry "Hank" McCoy aka Beast but Vaughn should probably have served a short prison sentence for even thinking of Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut. For starters, Vinnie Jones is just a terrible, terrible block of wood and can't act his way out of a serviette napkin. Secondly, Jones wears a rubbish muscle suit and looks nothing like Juggernaut. The character is huge in the comics. He's like The Hulk and is always destroying entire streets fighting Thor or X-Force. He should have been CG in X-Men 3: The Last Stand.
The story in X-Men: First Class is set primarily in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and focuses on the relationship between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the origin of their groups the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, respectively, as they deal with the Hellfire Club led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is bent on world domination. Bacon is a bit hammy as the villain but then this is not a Ken Loach film so you can't really complain.


X-Men: First Class also introduces new actors to the series including Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence who, like McAvoy and Fassbender, reimagine popular characters from the franchise (Beast and Mystique) that have already been established in previous films. This vague alternative reboot of the X-Men franchise works wonders in reinvigorating a franchise that was rapidly running out of steam and places to go. By introducing a fresh cast of younger actors in the roles it manages to draw new interest in the series and Matthew Vaughn proves to be a good choice of director.
Vaughn can mesh action and character better than most  - at least he USED to be able to as his career seems to have fallen off a cliff lately. He seems to be flirting with becoming the new Neil Marshall these days. Marshall once did great work on Dog Soldiers, The Descent, and Game of Thrones but his last batch of films have been unwatchable dreck. Vaughn seems to be heading down that path. There are those who say Vaughn was never much good to begin with but I think films like the first Kingsman and Kick-Ass are great fun for what they are. The fact that Vaughn no longer has Jane Goldman writing his scripts might be a factor in why his films seem to be rubbish now. It could simply be the case that Vaughn never had that many good films in him and has passed his sell by date. I don't really know.
Anyway, Vaughn's obstreperous directing style is a good fit for a comic book film. One of the most enjoyable aspects of X-Men: First Class is the James Bond quality it has at times and the way it deliberately harkens back to the sixties Bonds. Michael Fassbender is very suave as a young Magneto and makes you wonder at times why he didn't get strongly considered for the 007 role when they replaced Pierce Brosnan. Perhaps he wasn't well known enough back then?
James McAvoy is also very good as a young Xavier and he and Fassbender lend class and gravitas to the scenes they are in. The setpieces are well staged and enjoyable and it's fun to see the yellow spandex costumes from the comics make an appearance. The only strange note is the way that Mystique, a supporting villain character in the original trilogy, is now almost like the leader of the X-Men and a main player. One presumes this is because Jennifer Lawrence took over the part and was becoming a big star. They clearly wanted Lawrence front and centre.
X-Men: First Class is no masterpiece but it did feel fresh at the time to have an X-Men film directed by someone other than Bryan Singer (though to be fair to Singer he did return with Days of Future Past - his best X-Men film and one that amusingly retconned X-Men 3 out of existence). Brett Ratner's X-Men film felt very rote and by the numbers but X-Men: First Class is much more inventive and interesting than that misfire. X-Men: First Class feels a bit small scale compared to later superhero films but that's by no means a bad thing because most of us are bored to tears now of CGI cities being destroyed and third acts full of bombastic soulless computer generated carnage.
X-Men: First Class gave what seemed at the time like an ailing franchise a new lease of life and is pretty good fun. It has some shrewd casting and serves as an interesting and welcome detour away from Bryan Singer's domination of this franchise. Singer eventually blew up his own franchise with the dreadful X-Men: Apocalypse and then we got the damp squib of Dark Phoenix. I'd probably rank First Class as the third best X-Men film after X2 and Days of Future Past but there isn't that much between them.
- Jake
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