Mutation is “groovy.” At least according to Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy, following in the wheels of the great Patrick Stewart in this latest instalment of the superhero franchise.
It’s back to where it all began for the X-Men, with the film’s opening echoing the beginning of the first film back in 2000. A young Erik Lehnsherr screams in agony as his parents are taken from him in a German concentration camp during the World War II. As he reaches out to them, the gates which separate them contort and bend, his desperation activating his devastating mutation. Little does he know he is destined to become Magneto, the villain who was brought to life in the first three films by Sir Ian McKellen.
In First Class Michael Fassbender plays the metal-manipulating mutant, delivering a dominant and icy performance of a man driven to vengeance by the horrors he suffered as a child.
Luckily his path of destruction is halted when he meets Charles Xavier, a young Oxford graduate with the power to read people’s minds. Charles convinces Erik to work with him to bring mutants together to take down the ultimate threat, a man named Sebastian Shaw, who wants to start World War III by provoking Russia and America in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis.
Shaw (Kevin Bacon), and his band of mutants known as the Hellfire Club, threatens various political figures to take steps towards war through the film, leading to a fleet-on-fleet face-off just off the coast of Cuba, where the X-Men intervene and we discover both where Magneto gained his signature helmet and Xavier lost the ability to walk.
The mutants of this film are a combination of the new and the familiar, including a perfectly-timed cameo from one series regular, with the striking blue duo of Mystique and Beast probably being the most well-known. New recruits include Banshee, who can produce glass-shattering screams and sonar, and a relative of the more familiar mutant, Adam Summers, otherwise known as Havoc, who can create arcs of red energy around his body.
The film is very much within the continuity of its predecessors – with the odd inconsistency, such as how Mystique can be a teenager in 1960 and middle aged in 2000, explained away with some well-placed techno-babble. Some of the films funniest moments come from quips about Charles’ hair, but equally there is much enjoyment to be had if you’d never heard of these characters before, so you don’t have to be a massive X-Men geek to keep track of what’s going on.
The dynamic of the plot is built around the difference in ideals between Charles and Eric; Charles seeks cooperation and peace with humanity, while Erik does not believe mutants will ever be accepted and pushes for dominance and superiority.
McAvoy shines as a young Charles, more cheeky and charming than Patrick Stewart’s incarnation, and yet his conviction and dedication to what he believes are solid, with the wisdom of his later self just waiting to be unlocked.
Fassbender too makes a bold impression, building on Erik’s single-minded nature in the opening act to a complex character struggling between his emotions and actions, with his anger at his past and determination to avenge his mother’s death epitomised with the immortal phrase: “Never again.”
The rest of the cast complete the team brilliantly, with each character having their own revelations and growing as their confidence builds and they hone their powers. No one character seems overbearing or left out, a testament to the skill of Director Matthew Vaughn, who is no stranger to superheroes after directing the superb Kick-Ass last year.
In all the film delivers everything you could want on celluloid: action, emotion, a glimmer of romance and believable characters who you really care about, even if some are a tad larger than life. The balance between every aspect, from story to special effects, is perfect, and takes you on an action-packed thrill ride with real substance. The bar for all superhero films, if not action films in general, has been raised.
James Michael Parry